EU presidents embrace ‘new chapter’ as UK bows out of bloc

Though the Brexit Day gathering of the Parliament, Commission and Council presidents was clearly tinged with sadness, the leaders were keen to focus on the future of the EU.
credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

31 Jan 2020

European Council President Charles Michel, speaking on the day the UK leaves the EU, has insisted that the EU has “many strengths.”

Speaking alongside his Commission and Parliament counterparts, Ursula von der Leyen and David Sassoli in Brussels, Michel said, “This is an exceptional day for the EU and I have mixed feelings. It is never a happy moment when someone leaves but we have to open a new chapter and use all our energy to build a stronger and more ambitious EU.”

The UK will leave the EU at midnight.


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The three took part in a “retreat” on Thursday to discuss the future of the EU in the wake of losing one of its biggest members, the first ever such departure.

Michel, a former Belgian Prime Minister, told reporters the retreat had been a chance to discuss a “strategy between the EU institutions on forging better cooperation together.”

“We face the challenge of a digital age, climate change and economic growth but we have many strengths: the same values, freedoms and rule of law. We have 27 strong democracies, 22 million businesses, and a big single market.”

“More than ever we have to think how to use the tools we have to be more efficient and deliver more for citizens. I am convinced that in the next months we will work closely together to show again that this unique EU project, unique in history, is very strong and is for all EU citizens.”

“This is an exceptional day for the EU and I have mixed feelings. It is never a happy moment when someone leaves but we have to open a new chapter” Charles Michel, Council President

He said that at the international level there was “every reason for the EU to be more confident and self-assertive.”

Asked what lessons, if any, the EU could derive from Brexit, he said, “It is important to respond much more to the expectations of citizens and to explain the added value of this project. You have got to bring citizens together and it is also crucial to demonstrate that you can deliver.”

“The upcoming conference on the future of Europe is an opportunity to much more involve citizens in decision-making.”

He admitted that “unity is never easy, but I feel a real will to work together. People thought we wouldn’t keep unity in the talks with the UK but we did. But we now have to work day after day to strengthen confidence of citizens.”

Von der Leyen, a former defence minister in Germany, said, “There was a very nice quote from Jean Monnet [a founding father of the EU] who said ‘I am not pessimistic, I am not optimistic but I am determined.’”

“It is good that the three of us have today and yesterday joined forces. We are not pessimistic, we are not optimistic but we are determined.”

“It is important now to harness the digital agenda, the Green Deal and build competition, with our values embedded in it. Europe leads in these areas as a global authority.”

“Our strength does not lie in splendid isolation but in our unique union” Ursula von der Leyen, Commission President

She added “As the sun rises on Saturday a new chapter will open for the EU 27. It’s a chance to ensure that the EU continues to lead the way.”

“Saturday will also mark the end of nearly 50 years of UK membership. When the UK joined I was still at school and we had just six Member States. Today there are 27 and during all these years our union has gained political impetus and become an economic  powerhouse.

“Our strength does not lie in splendid isolation but in our unique union. Nowhere else can you find a union of 450 million people, speaking 24 languages in 27 countries who all work and live together.

“This is not by chance but is grounded in decades of experience and a determination to shape our future together.”

She added, “Let there be no doubt though: the challenges we face have not changed because of Brexit. These include climate change and the green deal.”

“We want Brexit to be the start of a new partnership with the UK. But, be clear, non-membership can never be the same as being a member.”

In a Q and A with journalists, she said there was a “clear legal basis” to guarantee citizen’s rights for Britons in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, saying, “this guarantee is in the WD and was put there by both sides. We found a very good solution on citizen’s right as well as the Ireland issue.”

“Over the next weeks, months and years we will have to loosen some of the threads carefully stitched together between the EU and the UK over five decades. And as we do so, we will have to work hard to weave together a new way forward as allies, partners and friends” David Sassoli, Parliament President

She added, “I want to stress that we are a union of 27 and every member has the same influence and same voice. No one was ever forced to join the EU. They all came voluntarily and that is because the EU represents like no other region the rule of law and personal dignity.”

“It is not just a common market; it is more than that and there are values that unify us and that is why many countries still knock at the door and want to join.”

“The EU has been criticised and some say it has to be faster and more visible. Yes, maybe, but if you look at what it has achieved and the unity it brought to a continent torn apart before that we can be proud of the EU. We have to ensure all do all we can to protect it and make it thrive and grow.”

“It is the British who decided to go and that must be respected but, in the talks, we saw a precious experience: how much that unity counts and how strong we are in unity. This weighs far more as an EU27 than you can ever have alone.”

“We are losing a pragmatic, down-to-earth member. It was not always easy, but dealing with all 27 was not always easy. We have shared lot of history and experience.”

“But, I stress, it was the choice of the British to be on their own. It is now up to us to negotiate the best possible agreement.”

For his part, Parliament President David Sassoli said, “We need to look to the future and build a new partnership between enduring friends. Together, our three institutions will do everything in their power to make it a success. We are ready to be ambitious.”

“How close that partnership will be depends on decisions that are still to be taken. Because every choice has a consequence. Without the free movement of people, there can be no free movement of capital, goods and services. Without a level playing field on environment, labour, taxation and state aid, there cannot be the highest quality access to the single market. Without being a member, you cannot retain the benefits of membership.”

He added, “Over the next weeks, months and years we will have to loosen some of the threads carefully stitched together between the EU and the UK over five decades. And as we do so, we will have to work hard to weave together a new way forward as allies, partners and friends.”

The Italian MEP added, “We have always deeply regretted the UK’s decision to leave but we have always fully respected it, too. The agreement we reached is fair for both sides and ensures that millions of EU and UK citizens will continue to have their rights protected in the place they call home.”

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