Brexit and the joys of starting over

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Anniversaries are special moments. They can be sombre affairs, such as the first anniversary of the Brussels terror attacks, an occasion made even grimmer by the 22 March tragedy in London.

Anniversaries can also be a time for reflection and sober deliberation. The European Union’s celebration of its 60th anniversary on 25 March was just such a moment.

And then there is 29 March. History is being made today as Britain triggers Article 50 and starts negotiations on its divorce from (sorry, its ‘new relationship’ with) the EU.

Brexiteers are in celebratory mood. After all, it’s not every day that a nation takes back control of its destiny, unshackles itself from 44 years of EU domination and morphs magically into an independent and intrepid world power (also known as ‘Global Britain’).

But pro-EU demonstrations in London are proof that not everyone is dancing with joy. Many share European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s description of Britain’s departure from the EU as a “tragedy”.

Not to be forgotten amid the Brexit focus is a simple fact: it’s not just Britain that is starting over.

29 March will also be remembered as the formal birthday of the new ‘EU-27’. Having renewed their vows in Rome, EU leaders embark on a new journey together, without Britain.

It will be a difficult voyage. Far-right populism, increased polarisation of minorities and unending economic problems are not going away anytime soon. Refugees and migrants will continue to knock on Europe’s doors, creating divisions and challenging EU solidarity. Difficult elections lie ahead in France, Germany and possibly Italy.

29 March will be remembered as the formal birthday of the new ‘EU-27’

The American and Russian presidents, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, now joined by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have made no secret of their dislike of the EU and all it stands for.

But the conversation is changing. Thankfully last year’s talk of a ‘collective depression’ and ‘existential crisis’ is no longer making headlines. Instead, as Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian premier and host for the Rome celebrations underlined, “the EU is choosing to start again”.

This is good news. Starting over, as John Lennon sang to us all those years ago, can be exciting and exhilarating. EU-27 leaders would do well to take Lennon’s advice and put more poetry, emotion and imagination into their courtship of EU citizens.

The thousand-word Rome declaration is good enough, but won’t really do the trick. If Europeans are to fall in love again with the EU, leaders, ministers, politicians, even EU officials, must – as Lennon sings – “spread their wings and fly”.

Perhaps for the first time in recent history, the public in many parts of Europe wants the EU to soar.

Brexit, Trump’s election and just plain common sense about the need to work together in a difficult world have galvanised many Europeans into supporting the EU.

Importantly, there are European politicians who are passionate about countering the anti-EU message of xenophobic far-right politicians.

We will miss Britain – but we can also make sure that the heartbreak of Brexit goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of a reinvigorated European Union

Jesse Klaver, the charismatic young leader of the Dutch GreenLeft party, Emmanuel Macron in France, and Martin Schulz of the German Social Democrats are upfront about their support for the EU, embracing the vision of an open and diverse Europe.

Klaver, who increased his party’s seats in the Dutch parliament by a factor of four, has shown that being Dutch-Moroccan-Indonesian is not a barrier to success. His advice to young people is to “never give up” in the face of challenges.

Others need to have a similarly positive message of inclusion and participation. A safe and secure Europe must also be an inclusive one, not one that fears diversity.

The EU in the 21st century may be ‘multi-speed’, with less being done in Brussels and more in capitals. It may or may not be able to become a more powerful global player and may or may not have a real common defence and security policy.

But what’s important is that the conversation about Europe’s future has started.

Indian author and diplomat Shashi Tharoor pointed recently to the “shambles of that original Brexit” when the British departed from India in 1947, leaving behind chaos and violence – and the birth of independent India and Pakistan.

This time it’s different. We will miss Britain – some of us very much. But we can also make sure that the heartbreak of Brexit goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of a reinvigorated European Union.

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