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.
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.
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.