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The young see Brexit for what it really is - they will make Britain European again

The European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator looks to the future. 

It was a sad moment, Wednesday last week, when the British ambassador delivered the letter to President Tusk.

It’s true, the relationship between Britain and Europe was never easy. It was never a love affair, and certainly not "wild passion". More a marriage of convenience.

And that was already clear from the beginning.

In the '50s, Britain decided against membership of the Steel and Coal Community. Clement Attlee and Labour didn't want it, while Winston Churchill and the Tories were in favour. In 1955, during the first step towards a common market, Britain walked away from the table.

And in the early years of the Union, British Prime Minister Macmillan looked at the continent with nothing less than suspicion. What were they cooking up there in Brussels? We're they really only discussing coal, steel and a customs union? Or were they also talking politics? Were they also plotting on foreign policy - or God forbid - defence.

The British Prime Minister wrote to his Foreign Minister: “For the first time since Napoleon, the major continental powers are united in a positive economic grouping, with considerable political aspects”. And to his own surprise, Macmillan had to admit this new experiment - and I quote again “was not directed against Britain”.

When Britain finally joined in 1973 - after several blockades by General De Gaulle - the headlines were festive. But it was only a short honeymoon. Margaret Thatcher asked for her “money back”. And her successor John Mayor called the euro, a currency as strange as a rain dance with "the same impotence". The pound sliding against the euro, as we see today, was not exactly what he expected.

The rest is history, colleagues.

Perhaps it was always impossible to unite Great Britain with the continent. Naive to reconcile the legal system of Napoleon with the common law of the British Empire. Perhaps it was never meant to be.

But, our predecessors should never be blamed for having tried. Never. It's as important in politics as it is in life: to try, new partnerships, new horizons, to reach out to each other, the other side of the Channel. I am also sure that - one day or another - there will be a young man or woman who will try again, who will lead Britain into the European family once again. A young generation that will see Brexit for what it really is: a catfight in the Conservative party that got out of hand, a loss of time, a waste of energy, a stupidity.

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Although I continue to think that Brexit is a sad and regrettable event, I believe it's also important that we remember, remember what Britain and Europe in this more than forty years have achieved together. We might not have had the most passionate relationship, but it wasn’t a failure either. Not for Europe and certainly not for Britain and the British.

Let's not forget: Britain entered the Union as the "sick man of Europe" and - thanks to the single market - came out the other side. Europe made Britain also punch above its weight in terms of geopolitics, as in the heyday of the British Empire. And we from our side, must pay tribute to Britain's immense contributions: a staunch, unmatched defender of free markets and civil liberties. Thank you for that. As a liberal, I tell you, I will miss that.

Colleagues, within a few weeks, we will start the process of separation. The goal must be a new and stable relationship, a deep and comprehensive partnership, an association between the UK and the EU that certainly will be different from our shared membership today. Let's in this new venture always remember our common bonds, our common culture, our shared values, our joint heritage and history. Let's never forget that together we belong to the same great European civilization who spread its wings from the Atlantic port of Bristol to the mighty river Volga.

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But Brexit is not only about Brexit. Brexit is also about our capacity to give rebirth to our European project. Let's be honest: Brexit didn’t happen by accident. Even when, since Brexit, we see a change for the good in the mood of the public, let's not fool ourselves. Europe is not yet rescued. Europe is not yet recovered from the crisis. Europe is still in need of change, radical change. Change towards a real Union, an effective Union, a Union based on values and the real interests of our citizens. A Union that stands up against autocrats. Autocrats who close down universities. Autocrats who throw journalists in jail. Autocrats who make corruption their trademark and who yesterday beyond humanity bombed again innocent men, woman and children with chemical weapons in Syria.

During our negotiations, let us never forget why our founding fathers - British and other Europeans alike - launched the European project: freedom, justice and peace.

Guy Verhofstadt is a Belgian MEP and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group, as well as being a former Belgian Prime Minister. He is the lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament. This is a transcript of a speech he made to the European Parliament. 

 

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.