But he also acknowledged the possibility of a second referendum as unlikely – while taking the opportunity to issue a stark warning over the dangers of a no-deal Brexit, warning Mrs May Britain risked becoming a “like Morocco” if it crashed out without an agreement in place on March 29, 2019. And he fears a hard Brexit would also hit Germany hard financially. German national Mr Oettinger, the EU’s budget specialist, said there was still a chance MPs would vote in favour of Mr May’s withdrawal agreement agreement in January and that there was no public support for a disorderly Brexit or another referendum.
Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement was ratified by Brussels on November 25 – but she was forced to postpone a parliamentary vote on it earlier this month after admitting she would lose by a large margin.
Eurosceptic MPs and Democratic Unionist Party MPs are deeply unhappy with a commitment to a “backstop” for Northern Ireland which would tie it to EU rules and regulations during the course of the transition phase which will follow Britain leaving the EU.
Critics say this is unacceptable because it would see Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the UK.
Meanwhile the Labour Party is committed to remaining in a customs union with the EU, so are highly unlikely to back Mrs May’s proposals in their current form.
A vote is now scheduled to take place in the week starting January 14, meaning the schedule for getting it passed is extremely tight, given it needs to be agreed before January 21.
In an interview with Funke Media Group, Mr Oettinger said: “It is not entirely unlikely that the British parliament will vote for the divorce agreement in January.
“There is certainly no majority for a disorderly Brexit or for a new referendum.”
Referring to recent efforts by pro-EU campaigners for a so-called People’s Vote, Mr Oettinger said the likelihood of Britain remaining in the EU had increased slightly over the past few months.
However he added: “Nevertheless, I assume that it will come to an exit at the end of March.”
He warned Mrs May about the risks of leaving the EU without a deal in place and withholding the £39billion bill the UK is scheduled to pay the EU as part of the divorce settlement.
In such an instance, Britain would become “a third country like Morocco or Azerbaijan,” he said.
He also stressed Germany would be clobbered as a result, adding: “Germany would face an additional three-digit million euros of hundreds of millions of euros.”
Speaking earlier this month, Mr Oettinger echoed the words of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, stressing there was no scope to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, stressing all Brussels could would be add clarifications.
However, in a interview with Focus magazine days later, he suggested a final decision would not be confirmed until the last minute, with nothing finalised until the end of March.
On December 19 the Commission unveiled its “no-deal” contingency action plan for sectors including financial services, air transport, customs, and climate policy.
A press statement explained: “The Commission considers it essential and urgent to adopt these measures today to ensure that the necessary contingency measures can enter into application on 30 March 2019 in order to limit the most significant damage caused by a “no-deal” scenario in these areas.
“These measures will not – and cannot – mitigate the overall impact of a “no-deal” scenario, nor do they in any way compensate for the lack of stakeholder preparedness or replicate the full benefits of EU membership or the terms of any transition period, as provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement.
“They are limited to specific areas where it is absolutely necessary to protect the vital interests of the EU and where preparedness measures on their own are not sufficient.”
(Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg)