In their joint op-ed on Friday, the day before Brexit, the presidents of the three main EU institutions expressed mixed feelings but were optimistic about a future without United Kingdom.
They tended to forget not only the difficult negotiations during the 3,5 years since the fateful British referendum but also the often-troublesome British membership in the EU.
“These emotions reflect our fondness for the United Kingdom – something which goes far beyond membership of our Union. We have always deeply regretted the UK’s decision to leave but we have always fully respected it, too,“ wrote Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President, David Sassoli, European Parliament President and Charles Michel, European Council President.
As for a future without United Kingdom, “the EU can” because of several reasons. “We can because we have the largest internal market in the world. We can because we are the top trading partner for 80 countries. We can because we are a Union of vibrant democracies. We can because our peoples are determined to promote European interests and values on the world stage.”
They were also optimistic about building a new lasting, positive and meaningful partnership with the UK. “Whilst the UK will cease to be an EU member, it will remain part of Europe. Our shared geography, history and ties in so many areas inevitably bind us and make us natural allies.”
“Tomorrow will also mark a new dawn for Europe. ”We will continue to work together on foreign affairs, security and defence with a common purpose and shared mutual interests. But we will do it in different ways. That work continues as soon as the sun rises tomorrow.”
In a joint press conference in Brussels on Friday (31 January), the three presidents returned to the same messages – regret about the UK leaving the EU and optimism about EU’s bright future without the UK. The only dissenting voice was from Sassoli, who indirectly criticised the UK for leaving. “Why do so many people want to break-up the EU?” he asked and made a passionate call for a rule-based order in Europe.
The UK played an important role in the EU and acted as a kind of counterweight against France and Germany, because of its economy, with half of its trade with the EU, and geopolitical position, including a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Will the power balance in the EU change after Brexit?
“We are a union of 27 members. Every member state has the same influence and the same vote. It’s the beauty of the EU. It will be same in the future,” von der Leyen assured at the press conference.
Asked about how the rights of EU citizens in the UK will be guaranteed after Brexit, she said that the two sides have found a good solution and referred to the legal basis in the withdrawal agreement. In fact, the agreement focuses on residence rights. The issues of voting rights and freedom of movement for citizens who move between the EU and UK post-Brexit still need to be resolved.
The three presidents were also asked about which lessons the EU could learn from Brexit. “An important point is that we in the future need to consider much more the expectations of the EU citizens,” replied Michel. “We need to explain to them the added value of the European project.” EU needs to demonstrate that it can deliver on for example the European Green Deal.
“It’s a matter of applying a new development model which will allow citizens more opportunities and reduce inequalities in Europe,” said Sassoli. “No individual country can cope on its own with the challenges ahead such as security, migration, environment, and the economy. These are also global challenges and that’s why we need the EU.”
Von der Leyen added that the EU emerged more unified and stronger after Brexit. “The 3,5 years of Brexit negotiations was a precious experience and shows how much unity counts. We managed to preserve our unity and protect our member state Ireland in face of Brexit.”
With all the difficult negotiations behind EU, and those still ahead, Brexit is a peaceful process. In Europe’s war-torn past, such a divorce would have been less peaceful. On the prospects of past and future enlargements, she said, “That’s the beauty of EU – no-one has been forced to join EU, everyone joined voluntarily because they wanted to.”