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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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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