Jean-Claude Juncker. Picture: REUTERS
Jean-Claude Juncker. Picture: REUTERS

Brussels — The EU should have ignored the UK government’s advice to refrain from interfering in the 2016 Brexit referendum because the British people needed to know they were being lied to, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker says.

Juncker, who is due to stand down later this year, said respecting then-prime Minister David Cameron’s request that EU chiefs stay quiet in the run-up to the vote, was one of the biggest errors of his time in office.

“It was a mistake not to intervene and not to interfere,” Juncker told reporters in Brussels. “We would have been the only ones to destroy the lies that were circulating around.”

At the time, the British government thought that interventions by EU figures would do more harm than good in the bid to win the vote to stay in the bloc. Some in Europe agreed but others were frustrated that they couldn’t make the case that they cared about the UK’s membership and wanted people to vote to remain.

“I was wrong to be silent at an important moment,” said Juncker.

EU officials believe that British voters weren’t told the truth about the amount of money the UK contributes to the bloc’s central budget. Famously, the Leave campaign emblazoned “£350m a week” on the side of a bus, but that figure doesn’t take into account money that the UK gets back from the EU.

The EU also thinks that voters were given wrong information about Turkey’s prospects of becoming a member and the ease with which the UK would get a beneficial trade deal if it left.

With Jonathan Stearns and Nikos Chrysoloras.