Guy Verhofstadt was a great friend to the Remain movement in the years during and after the Brexit referendum.
The former Belgian prime minister, who wrote he would “always plead for the European Union to keep its arms and mind open for friends across the Channel” was a loud, positive, buoyant European voice for Britain to retain its central role at the heart of the continent and a constant presence at pro-EU rallies.
The MEP was also, with his insider’s perspective, a potent critic of the Brexiteers’ hypocrisy, pointing out, for example, Nigel Farage’s fitful appearances at the legislature from which he drew such a healthy salary.
But that friendship does not mean we should not distance ourselves when he oversteps the mark – and his claim in an interview this week that Russia might not have invaded Ukraine if Britain had remained in the EU did just that.
Whether Britain was in the EU or not would have played the exact same role in Vladimir Putin’s thinking as it did when he sent his forces rolling into Crimea in 2014, more than a year before David Cameron even won the majority which gave him the mandate to hold his ill-fated referendum – none.
There is, of course, no doubt that, had Putin had a vote in the referendum, he would have loved to see a leading member depart the EU, sowing both discord and acrimony in the continent’s politics for years. But his determination to take Ukraine, one born of extreme Soviet nostalgia, a disastrous misreading of geopolitics and not a little lockdown alienation-induced hysteria, would not have been swayed by the UK staying in.
There is enough hard evidence of Brexit’s cataclysmic folly, from every economic report and forecast, to the misery inflicted on British businesses in the form of red tape and supply chain complexity, to labour shortages in every industry from agriculture to hospitality, to every grindingly boring hour spent in a barely shuffling airport queue, without resort to such questionable claims.
And besides, we can hardly mock the silly comments of the likes of now ex-Tory chair Nadhim Zahawi when he claimed that striking nurses were doing Putin’s work for him unless we also call out similar assertions of voices more sympathetic to our cause.
Myths – be they on the sides of buses, in interviews or in Boris Johnson’s Daily Telegraph columns – are the Brexiteers’ stock-in-trade. And so we must say: thanks for everything Guy – but on this one you’ve got it wrong.