Guy Verhofstadt on his sadness as the transition period ends, and his optimism for the future.
“There is one case,” wrote Dostoevsky, “and only one, when a man may deliberately and consciously desire something that is downright harmful even stupid, even extremely stupid, and that is: to have the right to desire what is even extremely stupid and not to be duty bound to desire only what is intelligent.”
That, for me, is Brexit. No one in their right mind ever really believed closing yourself off from your closest economic, political and geopolitical partner would be a constructive thing to do. But some honestly believed they had the right to do so, and the only way to spectacularly reaffirm that right was through something spectacularly self-harmful and destructive.
Still, it saddens and even frightens me to see how a great country can continue to belittle itself in this way. Because, apart from Dostoevsky’s, there are many more cases to start doing the responsible thing, the wise and dutiful thing. And Brexit, we should all understand by now, is none of those things.
Even apart from economics – the small companies scrambling to get a grip on the kind of paperwork they never knew existed, the open fields turned into concrete lorry parks – the state of the world in 2020 doesn’t make this any wiser.
Russian interference should worry all of us; Chinese assertiveness looks down upon democracies as never before; the new US administration will need to focus on healing its own wounds for years to come… I could go on, but you know the endless list of frightful internal and international challenges liberal democracies are facing. And then came Covid-19…
If ever there was a case for European countries to come together, it is now. Britain chose not to, and has not found a way to change its mind since.
Democracy is a way to start anew, time and again. To change your mind, when facts change. No one under the age of 22 had a say in the dreadful decision implemented this week. Those just old enough to vote at the time of the referendum overwhelmingly voted to remain. Whatever happens next, these younger generations will decide on their future for themselves. At some point, one way or another, they will find their way back to the European family.
As from our side, all we can do in the meantime is try to find least-bad options to make the new relationship work. And I for one will always plead for the European Union to keep its arms and mind open for friends across the Channel, for instance by keeping Erasmus and other exchange programmes open for young Britons.
This relationship was never easy, but there was always – and will always be – a lot of heart and mind in it. As a democrat and an optimist, I still believe these will win out in the end.
Guy Verhofstadt is a Belgian MEP and former prime minister of Belgium. He was leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe from 2009 to 2019, and served as the European parliament’s Brexit Coordinator and Chair of the Brexit Steering Group