“Keep calm and carry on,” some of you are no doubt muttering. But that’s not an easy thing for us to do. After all, you are still the masters of British cool-headedness – with or without Brexit. So let me say, in the direct German way: it hurts that you are leaving. Not just because the European Union is losing 66 million citizens and one of its strongest economies. You have always been “Global Britain”, and that did the EU good. Your pragmatism, your tolerance, your sense of humour - even your insistence on some of the typical British opt-outs - will be sorely missed, when you leave the EU in a few hours’ time.
Of course, things haven’t always been easy, especially since the Brexit referendum. Agonising all‑nighters in Brussels, never-ending parliamentary debates in Westminster and ever more desperate calls to “oordeeer” by the Speaker – for far too long Brexit sounded all too much like the British punk rock hit of my youth, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
Fortunately, things have changed. Nobody has fallen off the cliff with a no-deal Brexit. Almost 5 million people, who have relied on the right of freedom of movement and built a life in the UK or another EU country will be able to live, work or study where they are for the rest of their lives. Our companies will have more time to adapt to the new situation, thanks to the transition period until the end of 2020. And thanks to the special arrangements regarding the Irish border, we have preserved what was so painstakingly achieved 20 years ago: peace in Northern Ireland.
So today, Brexit sounds more like the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” to me, with an emphasis on “Hello”, a new beginning. Of course, our relationship will change. It will have to be looser than it was within the EU, but how loose it becomes is up to us. As far as Germany is concerned, I can tell you that we want our partnership with the UK to be as close as possible, even after Brexit. Ultimately, we share this continent and also the same European values that must be defended against ever greater opposition in the world. And whether we are talking about climate change, human rights, future technologies or European security – we are still playing on the same team!
We have eleven months to build our future. By the end of the year we need to be clear on the shape of our relationship. Free trade, fair competition, visa-free travel, work and travel opportunities, university exchanges, protection against terrorism and organised crime, management of international crises – these are just a few of the issues we need to find common ground on. We will only succeed in completing this Herculean task if we work with each other openly and fairly.
So let me say very openly: Yes, we all want zero tariffs and zero trade barriers, but that also means zero dumping and zero unfair competition. Without similar standards to protect our workers, our consumers, and the environment, there can be no full access to the largest single market in the world.
Some people say that the UK should be punished for leaving the EU in the negotiations to come. I would consider that a grave mistake. Seeking to harm those who are leaving would not change the Brits’ minds nor would we impress the rest of Europe. On the other hand, it would be politically wise and fair – in the best British sense – to conduct negotiations in a way that wouldn’t harm the European Union.
The crises of the past few days made me realize once again, what we can achieve if we pull together. Brits and Germans have been working hand in hand with France and the European Union to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. We share the same strategic goals: peace in Libya, in the Sahel, in Syria, in Ukraine and stability in the Western Balkans. We cannot allow the 31st of January to change that. If we let ourselves be divided, the influence of all Europeans will decline –on both sides of the Channel.
What we need are new, inclusive forms of cooperation, especially in foreign and security policy. That is why, a few months ago, I proposed a European Security Council to coordinate our positions on strategic issues of European security, to respond more quickly to crises, and, not least, to hold the UK and the EU together after Brexit. We are working with France to flesh out this idea as quickly as possible, in order to build a foundation for our future relationship.
The Beatles sang: “You say goodbye, I say hello.” We have sorted out the goodbye. But should this farewell ever turn out to be less final than anticipated, rest assured that we will always have a place for you – at our table in Brussels and in our hearts.
So let’s sort out the hello, our future. Separate, but together.
Goodbye, hello, UK!