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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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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.