Honourable members of parliament, fellow liberal democrats, ladies and gentlemen, Europeans, I hope you appreciate that I have managed to take place behind this lectern without any unnecessary rhythmic body movements and without making you uncomfortable in any way. I have managed this despite the fact that I have somewhat of a reputation as a dancing queen on the other side of the channel.
It is a great honour to have been granted the opportunity to speak to you today in these famous buildings, home to one of the world’s most venerable parliaments. You will have noticed I have not said “oldest parliament” or “mother of all parliaments” as is customary. I would have liked to, but regrettably both of these characterisations are not correct.
That does not mean I want to be impolite, or even that I do not think flattery has its place. Far from it. However, in these troubled times I simply do not want to be seen contributing to British exceptionalism with historical distortions. There are other politicians who do a perfect job of that without my help.
Those of you who follow the Dutch press closely know that I have not yet been able to secure a reputation as a lively speaker. The biggest disappointment so far, is that I tend to repeat things. I tend to repeat things.
So don’t worry if your mind wanders and you are temporarily distracted by thoughts of some gruesome detail or other of the no-deal, cliff edge scenario. There will be ample opportunity to catch-up further on. So let me repeat.
I am deeply grateful for the invitation, even though you have extended it originally to my illustrious predecessor, Mr Alexander Pechtold. Perhaps it would therefore be more accurate to say that my gratitude goes out to all of you for not having hastily withdrawn the invitation upon the news of my accession to the role of leader of my party, since doing so would have been fully understandable and quite forgivable. I am very grateful to have been invited here for my very first brief speech as leader of my party.
One of the more important aspects of the safety of this environment of kindred political spirits is that it is completely free of any form of ageism. I am all of 31 years old and the youngest leader ever to be elected to head the parliamentary group of our party and therefore feel a strong bond with Sir Vince, who is also still relatively new in the job. We belong to the same generation of leaders.
Another reason why it is good to be among friends today is the fact that we find ourselves in an unprecedented, chaotic and ever-worsening political situation. A situation that previously was utterly unthinkable. At least during the whole of my lifetime, as well as Sir Vince’s. Which is perhaps somewhat more significant.
A situation that is so alarming that it not only requires the frank truth-speaking that is possible among friends, but also calls for all the moral support and consolation that friends alone can give. I am speaking of course of the epic tragedy that goes by the deceptively simple and woefully catchy name “Brexit”.
Let’s first talk a little about this hideous word. “Brexit”. Because words matter. Words are the only means we have to communicate our understanding of reality and its problems to others, without whom we cannot solve those problems. Interpretative dance – with or without ABBA – really will not do the trick.
Language is humankind’s stock in trade in Darwin’s never-ending race. But it’s also, as Wittgenstein famously said, the limit of our universe. Talk about hard borders. Language can even become our enemy. We can use words as weapons to deceive and destroy. History is littered with examples of criminal political abuse of language. From ‘the great leap forward’ to George Bush’s ‘Clean Skies Act’ and the Trump regime’s ‘clean coal’.
The word Brexit evokes an image of a Britain that has to endure confinement in some kind of enclosure. An enclosure from which it can escape by simply moving through an opening marked ‘exit’. It can get up and go. A simple, single act of will. You just have to say yes or no. Piece of cake. In or out. All you have to do is tick the box.
The attraction of the image the word Brexit evokes is obvious.
Standing up and going for the “exit” has the flavour of decisiveness, independence, change and action. Much more attractive than being passive. Sitting on your hands. Keeping things as they are, afraid of what is outside the door. And then, of course, there is the unfortunate rubbery capacity of the word for it to be shaped into all kinds of attractive sounding derivations. Such as “brexiteer”.
Who would want to be something as stuffy and boring sounding as a “remainer” when you can be something as new-fangled and exciting as a “brexiteer”, dashing fearlessly through the exit to the great outdoors.
But the flavour of the word Brexit, the associations that come with it, have nothing to do with reality. No matter what adjectives you attach to it.
Theresa May’s “Red White and Blue Brexit”—which also happen to be the colours of the Dutch, Luxemburg and French flags—still has no meaningful relationship with reality whatsoever. So does the decidedly Orwellian Corbynism “Jobs first Brexit”. Which is basically something like an “efficient waste” or a “constructive demolition job”.
The true colours of Brexit are not the proud colours of le tricolor or the Union Jack. Far from it. The true colours of the complicated realities that are purposefully hidden behind the word Brexit are an infinite number of shades of grey.
The European Union—as the great Liberal Winston Churchill envisioned—is a living, organically evolving entity. It has had life breathed into it by the voluntary merging of sovereignty by its constituent states. It has taken on that life, which is now its own. And the hallmark of life is growth, evolution and development.
For 45 years the United Kingdom has been an integral part of that living, developing organism. Its economic, legal, political, social and cultural life has gradually, ever so slowly, converged and integrated into that of the other member states. 45 years of steady harmonization. 45 years of slow and steady joining together. 45 years of ever-closer union.
Year after year, treaty by treaty, regulation by regulation, directive by directive, judgment by judgment, summit by summit, the UK’s legal framework merged with that of the Union. Knot by knot, fibre by fibre, the United Kingdom has been woven into the rich fabric of our European Union. The fabric can no longer be unwoven. It can only be torn up. Fibres can be extracted. But the fabric of the UK will not re-emerge undamaged. Let alone somehow improved.
There is no simple “exit” that can be taken. There is no simple separation. There is only tearing. Cutting. Destruction. Every single element, every tiny strand is connected. The mightiest riddles, such as the customs union and the Irish border, dominate the political conversation. But the truth is that it’s nitty-gritty tiny strands of fabric all the way down.
During its 45 years in the EU, Britain has imported many tens of thousands of European laws and regulations. Many thousands more have direct effect. EU law has had absolute supremacy over British law ever since British accession. A little understood legal reality. The fabric of Europe’s legal framework is the fabric of the UK’s political life.
EU regulations and directives govern everything from equal pay for men and women to trademarks and copyright. From the protection of birds to industry standards that secure consumer safety and a level playing field for the manufacturing of nearly all products.
The dissolution of our Union will give rise to the need to deal with a bewildering array of problems. Including the status of staff employed on British military bases in Cyprus, the ownership of fissile nuclear materials, the future administration of sales taxes and thousands upon thousands of other issues.
A vast number of issues will bring decades of legal wrangling. Or they will simply be overlooked and come back to bite us years down the line. One of the reasons that a slim majority of British people voted to leave the EU may be that it has penetrated too far into British life for their liking. But the years of membership have constructed a reality that is extremely painful to change. And even harder to imagine a life outside.
So here is the core problem of the Brexit referendum. It wasn’t a Brexit referendum. Because Brexit is just a word. I’ll repeat that. Brexit is just a word. A word without any real meaning. A word without an agreed meaning. A word without a meaning that is understood by voters.
The word Brexit is nothing more than a populist deception. It was unmasked as such only after the referendum. When Mrs May was asked what Brexit actually meant and she spoke the spine-chillingly cynical words, “Brexit means Brexit”.
The referendum should never have asked an impossible in/out question. It should have spelled out to voters in granular detail the impact leaving the European Union would have on all aspects of daily life. It should have listed all the rights the voters would have to relinquish. Not one left out.
It should have explained that the UK economy is close to fully integrated with that of the other EU member states. And it should have listed the thousands of laws and regulations that underpin that integration. It should have spelled out the effect of the abolishment of each separate law and regulation on each separately identifiable economic activity. Only then could the question be asked: do you want to reject all of this?
Do you want to try and extricate the UK from the EU, thereby abandoning the entire legal framework the constituent parts of which we have explained to you? Obviously this may very well have led to the conclusion that such an approach is practically impossible.
But practical impossibility cannot justify deceptive simplification. If the truth is too complicated to fit onto a ballot paper, this is not a justification to start lying. If the truth is too complicated to fit onto a single ballot paper, you should simply rethink use of a referendum.
My party was founded in the 1960s, rooted in the wave of democratic renewal of that age. We are still the party of democratic renewal, though I have to admit our success has been limited. In the Netherlands we are now discussing the use of referendums as supporting instruments of a healthy representative democracy.
My party is still in favour of a kind of referendum as a means of strengthening the democratic participation of our citizens. But we have learned harsh lessons through the years.
First and foremost from the Brexit referendum. It was not democratic. It was meaningless. It was a disaster. Nobody, except perhaps for a few experts, knew what he or she was voting for. Nobody does to this day. That is not democracy. It is a travesty of democracy.
This is not because we do not like the outcome. It is because the Brexit referendum has weakened trust and belief in the idea of democracy. It has torn British society in two.
It may, over time, lead to the dissolution of the UK itself. We’re not asking for it. But if it does, I could imagine the Scots wanting to become independent members of the wealthiest and most successful peace project in human history.
As a party we take the lesson of the Brexit referendum very, very seriously. First, it has strengthened our belief that the gravest of all constitutional matters, our membership of the EU, must be subject to the same safeguards as apply to a change of our national constitution. Our constitution cannot be changed except by a majority—and then a qualified majority—in two successive parliaments. In other words: it requires parliament to be dissolved and an election to be held. The new members have to vote the same way.
As a party we are now working on a proposal—and you are the first to hear this—enshrining our membership of the EU in our national constitution.
So that we can prevent a nightmare of the Brexit referendum type: the complete destruction of our constitutional settlement in a single vote with a simple majority and with just the deceptive ‘yes/no’ question on the ballot. This is not the way we will want to see our lives radically changed.
Second, it has made us determined to advocate a corrective referendum with a clear minimum participation-level and a qualified majority only. In a corrective referendum people will be able to reject a certain specific piece of legislation. No abstract concepts open to multiple interpretations can ever be on the ballot paper.
The only silver lining of the Brexit disaster for us is the lessons we are drawing from it. But that does not mean we like it. Far from it. It saddens us deeply.
Our sadness, at least in part, is rooted in a history of friendship. Britain and the Netherlands have always stood tall together. Amidst the chaos that followed the Reformation, our countries stood together championing freedom in Europe.
Under the leadership of the Dutch King William the Third we broke the tyranny of Louis the fourteenth. True, we fought a few disastrous naval wars in the 17th century—wars that ultimately heralded the decline of Holland as a great world power. But history was quick to bring us together again.
Because while we celebrate William the Silent, his resolve could never match Britain’s heroic stand in 1940 and 1941. It was in Britain that our Government and resistance movement sought and found refuge. There are few Dutch cities and towns which do not enshrine memories of British bravery.
I live on the outskirts of Nijmegen, one of the focal points of Operation Market Garden, where British soldiers fought for our freedom. I’m reminded of it almost daily when I cross the Waal river.
In more recent times, Britain’s cultural magnetism has collapsed an already minimal distance between our countries.
I myself grew up on a healthy diet of British culture: from The Beatles to Ed Sheeran, from Monty Python to Little Britain and from the Spy Who Came from the Cold to the diaries of Bridget Jones. More recently I have taken to watching The Crown and was pleased to see images of a young Queen Elizabeth flying with British European Airways.
We are now more interconnected than ever before. Freedom of movement the EasyJet generation in and out of our cities. We attend each other’s universities, work in each other’s shops, and play on each other’s football teams.
Though, I’m sorry Vince, we have as yet not been able to persuade our brightest stars to join York City. It took Britain just a bit longer to catch up with the unifying project of Europe. But when you finally joined, we made a great success of it. We created the single largest market in the world. We welcomed into our midst the states that had suffered for so long behind the Iron Curtain. And we forged the beginnings of a truly European foreign and defence policy.
For all the burning injustices and external threats our societies still face, I believe the solutions are never in more isolation, but in greater cooperation. Case in point: this month’s Anglo-Dutch success in combating Putin’s efforts at democratic disruption. Our security, peace and prosperity now depend on a base of common power.
Together we can protect our natural resources from depletion. Together we can create a market that works for all. Together we can defend our people against foreign aggression. And together we can advance the cause of human rights and liberal democracy around the world.
My visit here today, I’m ready to admit, is fuelled by what some might characterize as blind optimism. A blind optimism that says Britain can still escape this mess. Naturally I have no real hope of making a dent in the national discussion today. But I believe Barack Obama—one famous foreigner who unsuccessfully intervened in the Brexit debate—when he says that optimism is never blind if it is rooted in tradition.
And you do know a thing or two about tradition. You do have a tradition of escaping at the last minute. It is no coincidence Harry Houdini spent his best years in Britain. It is equally less surprising that the great escape artist Sherlock Holmes is a British literary figure.
Nor is it at all strange that the most memorable of JK Rowling’s writing involves Harry Potter escaping disaster. What is necessary for this great country to make its greatest escape? I’m no expert, which is good, because I’ve heard you’ve had quite enough of them. But I would hazard to guess that it would take a last minute miracle. And I’m here to say that we will welcome miracles as befits miracles: with biblical comprehension.
Let me turn to Luke. Chapter 15, verse 11. The Parable of the Lost Son. Jesus tells of a man with two sons. One day the younger son suddenly demands his share of the estate, walks away from home and squanders his wealth in wild living. After a while, dejected by the failure of his adventure, he decides to return home. His father is beside himself with joy and prepares a feast. The older brother, who had stayed behind loyally working the fields, turned angry. Why reward such disloyal foolishness?
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
We don’t want you dead.
We don’t want you lost.
We don’t want your money.
We don’t want your jobs.
We don’t want payback.
We want you back.
Or, to speak with the great Robbie Williams:
We want you back for good.