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Moment that mattered: The British government triggers Article 50

Embargoed to 2200 Tuesday March 28 Prime Minister Theresa May in the cabinet signs the Article 50 letter, as she prepares to trigger the start of the UK's formal withdrawal from the EU on Wednesday.

British prime minister Theresa May signs Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, marking the start of two years of negotiations over the country’s exit from the European Union

I’ve been a member of the European Parliament since 2009 and the day Article 50 was triggered was the first time I’d ever switched on the television in my office. I wanted to watch [European council president] Donald Tusk’s reaction, which was quick and strong. He spoke on behalf of all of us when he said ‘there’s no reason to pretend this is a happy day, either in Brussels or London’. We’d known for some time that the letter triggering Article 50 would arrive, but it was still a sad occasion.

What had really disappointed me was the British parliament’s response to the supreme court ruling that it must have a vote on whether Article 50 is triggered. We heard this line from parliamentarians, that we regret the referendum decision but have to respect it. I’m sorry but that’s not what I expect from politicians. In 1970 German chancellor Willy Brandt went to Warsaw and got down on his knees in front of the Holocaust monument to apologise. If he’d held a referendum on whether to apologise in advance he probably would have lost, but he was a strong politician who did what he believed in and then convinced his people afterwards that it was the right thing to do. British politicians weren’t brave enough to face the crowd and explain why Europe is needed. How can anybody support any policy that goes against their vision, their feeling, their conviction? That’s what I’ve found most frustrating. The result wasn’t 70/30 – it was nearly half and half, and frankly I cannot understand how the 48 percent of Remain voters have had almost no political representation in the UK since the referendum.

The constitutional affairs committee I chair is extremely important because at the end of the negotiations the deal will need to get our consent. If the European parliament doesn’t approve the deal there’s no procedure to restart negotiations. It means there’s no deal, which is a car-crash scenario. Theresa May has often said that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, but no deal would clearly be a disaster for both sides.

The negotiations must begin with discussions on the rights of the three million EU citizens living in the UK. I am confident their rights will be protected because there seems to be political will on the British side and we must also reach a reciprocal agreement concerning the British citizens living in the 27 EU countries. We need to reach this agreement quickly because the uncertainty is not good for people or for business. After this we will discuss the financial settlement, which has been presented the wrong way to the British public by politicians. It’s not about punishing the UK. It’s about the costs of EU membership. We’re in the middle of the multiannual financial framework [providing a seven-year structure for setting annual EU budgets] which was set with UK participation. The UK is involved in many ongoing projects and has taken loans from the European Investment Bank. The first thing to do is agree on the principles and the methodology behind the settlement agreement.

“There was this fear that other countries may follow the UK, but the opposite has happened – approval of Europe has grown”

There are many other important issues. We hope that a hard border can be avoided in Ireland and it’s one of our red lines. We are committed to the peace process and we understand the risks there. But keeping an open border will be a challenge because there has to be a border somewhere, either on the island of Ireland or between Ireland and the UK. The challenge will be to make it a border you don’t feel, a seamless border. We believe we can find a solution but it won’t be easy. It’s also important to reach a trade agreement. But Theresa May has said on many occasions that she doesn’t want to be in the single market, the customs union or the European Court of Justice, and that makes reaching a trade deal very, very difficult. We could maybe do something like the CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) deal with Canada, but that took seven years to reach.

Theresa May talked about being a ‘bloody difficult woman’ in negotiations during her election campaign but it shouldn’t be about one side getting something at the expense of the other. This is a lose-lose situation which requires a win-win deal. I hope that the provocative statements were because of the election and will disappear. I’ve worked with our lead negotiator Michel Barnier and he knows how to make a difficult process efficient – and he’ll be surrounded by talented people. He’s committed to transparency and the public will be able to access documents. We’ve learned our lesson from TTIP [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal, criticised for a lack of transparency] and there’s nothing to hide – it’s about people’s lives, after all.

Will we present a united front in negotiations? Well, union is not the same as unanimity and there are 27 countries on our side. That said, I don’t think we’ve ever had this level of unanimity in the European Council among the heads of state and government, and we largely have unity in parliament – the mainstream parties are united. After the referendum there was this fear that other countries may follow the UK, but the opposite has happened – approval of Europe has grown and pro-EU candidates had positive results in the Dutch, Austrian and French elections. The anti-European arguments have been rejected – the UK referendum was like taking a cold shower.

Both the UK and the EU will become smaller after Brexit. The UK was not always the easiest member of the EU [to deal with], but we benefited enormously from its presence – it brought some necessary balance to Europe, especially through its commitment to a more liberal dimension for the economy. I hope the UK remains open-minded and that young British people continue to see Europe as a home where they can make friends, learn languages and do things together.

Another consequence of Brexit is that it’s going to take up so much of our time and energy, and it comes on top of a lot of important work such as the continuation of reforms. Although we are consumed by Brexit we’re more united than ever and there is a window of opportunity while we are united to get things done. Europe has always been about change and we will carry on with or without the UK.

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