Fog in Channel, Britain cut off
Nostalgia can make new realities bearable but it cannot make Brexit go away
by: Frans Timmermans

And so it is actually going to happen. The British divorce papers are in the post — “signed, sealed, delivered, I’m (no longer) yours”, as Stevie Wonder might say. The mind tells me this is our new reality, the heart aches for it just to be a bad dream. I was 12 when the UK joined, I was in an English school. So at an early age I knew full well that my kin, the Dutch, are much less like the Brits than we like to think and much closer to Germans, Belgians and Danes than we know.

And since then I have also known that Britain is different, has a different attitude towards European co-operation, and more than others feels the need to assert not just its uniqueness but also in the geographical distance of the British Isles from the continent.

There is still sometimes the illusion that the English Channel is wider than the Atlantic — so neatly encapsulated in the (apocryphal) headline “Fog In Channel, Continent Cut Off”. Similarly we Dutch like to bask in the illusion that the Brits love us as much as we do them, regardless of the three naval wars we fought. The 1688 Glorious Revolution was not so hostile. We are all children of a shared history — even if we do not share the same view of that history. The Prince of Orange was the Dutch hero at Waterloo, stopping Napoleon’s advance at Quatre Bras. Yet at my English school I was taught that ‘Slender Billy’ was a maverick who only got in Wellington’s way. Same history, different perspective.

And that is Europe. North, south, east, west: same history, different perspective. The art of working successfully in Europe is to get acquainted with all these different perspectives. Knowing that, we have to come to terms with the inevitability of our shared destiny.

Let’s just forget about history for a second and take a dispassionate look at how the world order is developing. Europe’s share of the global economy will continue to drop, not because we become smaller, but because others will become bigger. The same is true for our share of the world’s population and its security arrangements. Britain triggers Article 50

From a global perspective the EU has two kinds of member states: small ones and those who do not know yet that they are small. Even the biggest European nations will have to come to terms with the fact that their interests can no longer be imposed on others. Domination is a thing of the past; co-operation is our future.

The main actors on the world stage are the size of continents, be they nation states or voluntary groupings of nation states such as the EU. Nostalgia can help us ignore these harsh realities for a while, but it will not make them go away. Responsible politicians should never indulge in nostalgia — it is too much of a distraction at a time when a rapidly changing world throws up so many challenges, when we need to keep our wits about us.

I get it: “Brexit means Brexit.” And I will resist the urge to carry a torch for a loved one who has clearly discovered greener pastures elsewhere and who will not come back — in my generation, at least. But I believe we owe it to all those who were part of our shared history — more often than not pointing spears, swords and guns at each other — to do as little harm as possible to all involved in this divorce. For all its shortcomings, European co-operation and integration has created an understanding of shared destiny. We no longer point guns at each other; we fight it out at a conference table. And we will continue to do so when the UK is no longer a member state but, I hope, still a friend. The UK is leaving the EU, but not Europe.

I recognise that the urge to “take back control” — a strong driver of the Brexit vote in the UK referendum — is shared by many in Europe. The fundamental question is whether being together with other Europeans makes it more difficult to regain control of our destinies, or whether we need our strong partnership with fellow Europeans to jointly shape our future?

Does being together make us weaker, or does it make us stronger and more likely to remain relevant in the world of tomorrow? I will continue to believe passionately that we are better the closer we stay together. Same destiny, different perspective.

The writer is vice-president of the European Commission

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