‘Unhelpful belligerency’ in Brussels about the Brexit vote and ‘obduracy’ on the subject of free movement ‘could bring the EU down’, a leading figure in the Remain campaign told the International Bar Association conference in Washington yesterday. 

Addressing a session entitled ‘Brexit or bust’ Jack Straw (pictured), foreign secretary in the last Labour government, said that unless the European Commission re-examined itself ‘the sick man of Europe would end up being Europe itself’.

Straw was particularly critical of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who he said ‘lacks the capacity’ to understand the effect of his words on British public opinion. Quoting Clement Attlee, he said: ‘A period of silence on your part would be welcome... this period of silence needs to start operating quite quickly.’   

Straw, who campaigned to leave the European community in 1975 but later ‘came to see the EU as a noble project’, said that the British had never been emotionally attached to the European ideal. ‘That’s partly because we are an island race, and not least because the legal system and constitutional culture is so different,’ he said.

He attacked what he called the EU’s ‘huge transfers of power to the centre without popular consent’.

Despite this, he predicted that after departure much EU law would remain in place for ‘many many years to come’.  

As to the future, the example of Norway shows that countries can remain inside the single market without being part of the EU customs union. However also taking part in the panel, the justice minister Lord Keen of Elie predicted that any deal between the UK and EU ‘will be more Savile Row than H&M’.

Straw predicted that the prime minister would trigger the article 50 process next year in order to have something to show the electorate in the run-up the next general election.

And in a reference to Labour’s leadership contest, he noted: ‘The Conservatives are blessed by chaos and self-destruction in my own party.’