From this place I would like to say words of comfort and solidarity with the whole French nation in the face of the Paris tragedy. I say these words not only as the president of the European Council, but also as a citizen of Gdańsk, 90 percent destroyed and burnt, and later rebuilt. You will also rebuild your cathedral. From Strasbourg, the French capital of the European Union, I call on all the 28 Member States to take part in this task. I know that France could do it alone, but at stake here is something more than just material help. The burning of the Notre Dame cathedral has again made us aware that we are bound by something more important and more profound than Treaties. Today we understand better the essence of that, which is common, we know how much we can lose. And that we want to defend it – together.
Last week the European Council of 27 leaders, in agreement with the government of the United Kingdom, granted a flexible extension of the Article 50 period until the 31st of October this year. This extension gives our British friends more time and political space to find a way out of the current situation. I hope that they will use this time in the best possible way.
The European Council will be awaiting a clear message from the UK on a way forward. If the Withdrawal Agreement were to be ratified, the extension period will automatically end on the first day of the following month, meaning that the UK would leave the Union on that day. It is clear to everyone that there will be no re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement. However, to facilitate the ratification process, the EU27 is ready to reconsider the Political Declaration on the future relationship, if the UK position were to evolve.
Last week, the European Council changed the logic of granting a much shorter extension than requested by the UK, to giving an extension that is much longer. I proposed such a change, as in my view it has a few advantages.
First and foremost, only a long extension ensures that all options remain on the table, such as ratification of the current Withdrawal Agreement, or extra time to rethink Brexit, if that were the wish of the British people.
Second, this extension allows the EU to focus on other priorities that are at least as important, like trade with the US or the new EU leadership. I know that some have expressed fear that the UK might want to disrupt the EU’s functioning during this time. But the EU27 didn’t give in to such fear and scaremongering. In fact, since the very beginning of the Brexit process, the UK has been a constructive and responsible EU member state. And so, we have no reason to believe that this should change.
Third, this flexible extension delays the possibility of a no-deal Brexit by over 6 months. Thanks to this, millions of people and businesses have gained at least some certainty in these unstable times.
One of the consequences of our decision is that the UK will hold European elections next month. We should approach this seriously, as UK Members of the European Parliament will be there for several months, maybe longer. They will be full Members of the Parliament, with all their rights and obligations.
I am speaking about this today because I have strongly opposed the idea that during this further extension, the UK should be treated as a second-category member state. No, it cannot. Therefore, I also ask you to reject similar ideas, if they were to be voiced in this House.
I know that, on both sides of the Channel, everyone, including myself, is exhausted with Brexit, which is completely understandable. However, this is not an excuse to say: “let’s get it over with”, just because we’re tired. We must continue to deal with Brexit with an open mind, and in a civilised manner. Because whatever happens, we are bound by common fate, and we want to remain friends and close partners in the future.
During the European Council one of the leaders warned us not to be dreamers, and that we shouldn’t think that Brexit could be reversed. I didn’t respond at the time, but today, in front of you, I would like to say: at this rather difficult moment in our history, we need dreamers and dreams. We cannot give in to fatalism. At least I will not stop dreaming about a better and united Europe.
Dear friends, this is our last meeting in your current term. I hope to have the opportunity to meet most of you after the elections.
One remark: for many weeks now, the participation of the UK in the European Parliament elections has evoked emotions, especially in this chamber. I want to remind everybody that the UK has the right and the obligation to take part in this election as long as it is a member of the EU. This is not subject to negotiations. I also can’t agree to establishing a second category membership. I understand party interests but they cannot overshadow the legal reality. Mr Verhofstadt was applauded, heartily and energetically, by Mr Farage. This is a good enough reason for you, Mr Verhofstadt, to reconsider and reformulate your argumentation.