Don’t believe Theresa May. The election won’t change Brexit one bit | Guy Verhofstadt

Guy Verhofstadt
‘For me, the election is more akin to the unworldly art of Magritte.’ Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Having informed European leaders that Britain is leaving the European Union and, after laying out the UK’s negotiating position in a detailed notification letter, the prime minister is now asking the British people how they would like their full English Brexit served. In Brussels, we now wonder who will be joining us at the breakfast table after all.

As a Belgian, I have a long-standing appreciation of surrealism. My colleague, the European council president, Donald Tusk, suggested last week that the script could have been written by Alfred Hitchcock. For me, it is more akin to the unworldly art of Magritte.

In all likelihood, the Tory manifesto will replicate the prime minister’s Brexit white paper and the negotiating position set out by the government’s article 50 letter. What then, is the purpose of this Brexit general election?

The BBC video of Brenda from Bristol decrying another political campaign was seen far beyond the white cliffs of Dover. It appears this election is being driven by the opportunism of the party in government, rather than by the people they represent.

We can safely presume that by calling this election, Theresa May does not wish to throw into doubt the result of the referendum, but to solidify her support. Many in Brussels remain concerned that the chances of a deal were being eroded by the prime minister’s tough negotiating red lines and her lack of room for manoeuvre domestically, yet there is no guarantee that a sprinkling of additional Conservative MPs on the backbenches will provide this.

The theory espoused by some, that May is calling a general election in order to secure a better deal with the EU, is nonsensical. We can only conclude that many British politicians and the media still don’t fathom how article 50 will work. As with the referendum, which many European leaders saw as a Tory cat fight that got out of control, I have little doubt many on the continent see this election as again motivated by the internal machinations of the Tory party.

What has been billed as a “Brexit election” is an attempted power grab by the Tories, who wish to take advantage of a Labour party in seeming disarray to secure another five years of power before the reality of Brexit bites. Will the election of more Tory MPs give May a greater chance of securing a better Brexit deal? For those sitting around the table in Brussels, this is an irrelevance. British officials will represent the people of the UK in the negotiations, regardless of the number of Tory MPs.

Yes, many in Europe deeply regret the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. We were, and would have been, stronger working together to tackle climate change, shape globalisation and lead the fight for liberal democracy on our continent and beyond. But the British people should not be misled by the hysterical rightwing British press – there never has been and never will be a campaign or secret plot by EU leaders to keep Britain in the EU. The government has decided to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and the letter May sent to invoke this procedure set out the government’s negotiating position: Britain will be leaving the customs union. As a result, European leaders are preparing for customs controls to be introduced from Brexit day in March 2019.

Britain will be leaving the European single market that Mrs Thatcher pushed for, we have been informed. Leaving this single market has logical consequences: an end to the free movement of people, goods and services between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

I hope we can forge a close security partnership, as international terrorism knows no borders, but as May has ruled out any European court of justice oversight of the UK, we must act on the assumption the UK does not wish to participate in EU justice and home affairs instruments. Come the summer of 2019, unless the government requests transitional arrangements to the contrary and these requests are agreed by all EU countries, UK citizens will have no more of a right to holiday, travel and study in EU countries than tourists from Moscow or students from Mumbai.

Leaving the European Union means the EU agencies based in the UK will be relocated. I expect this will be approved by EU leaders as soon as June, if not before. Contrary to the obscure claims by government officials, the European Union’s “crown jewels” of the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency will not remain in a post-Brexit Britain, paid for by EU countries. This is not, as the Daily Express has decried, a “punishment”. This is another logical consequence of Theresa May’s article 50 letter. This decision will not be up for negotiation.

I hope this election will lead to an honest debate about the bitter realities of Brexit. Perhaps then the fog of surrealism that has engulfed UK ministers will clear and we can have a serious discussion about our future relationship, which I hope will be a close one.

Guy Verhofstadt is the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator

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