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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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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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