The people of Britain should not be punished for Brexit – and the EU will make sure they aren't

Guy Verhofstadt
The European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator says it is vital that talks between the UK and the EU are held in good faith and in a constructive manner: Getty

On Wednesday, Theresa May will trigger Article 50 and so begin the official two-year process by which the UK leaves the European Union. As the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, made clear this week, EU leaders see Brexit as a failure and a tragedy. We did not seek this outcome: I personally campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union.

In the months to come, it is vital that talks are held in good faith and in a constructive manner. Both the UK and the EU stand to lose from this process, which is why we must work to mitigate the effects of the decision that has been taken.

The horrific terrorist attacks in London this week, on the anniversary of the Brussels attacks last year, show how important it is that European nations remain united in the face of common challenges, which no single one of our countries can tackle on their own.

A majority of British citizens might voted to leave the European Union we have built together, but I hope Britain will stay a close strategic partner for the EU in the years to come. While I have no doubt that negotiations could at times become challenging, we must remember our historically close links and fight for a positive future relationship for a new generation.

I am confident the European Parliament's immediate priority will be to put in place a reciprocal agreement to safeguard the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU. Regrettably, many people feel the Brexit decision has put their lives, relationships and future prospects on hold – and we will seek to provide clarity as a matter of urgency.

I believe it is also important that those in the UK who wish to maintain personal links with the European Union can do so.

Another priority will be to find a practicable solution to the huge uncertainty created by Brexit for the island of Ireland and its people. We must ensure the continuity and stability of the Northern Ireland peace process and avoid the reintroduction of a divisive hard border within Ireland.

Britain and the European Union should aim for a future relationship that is fair and as close as possible.

I am acutely aware that there are those, both within Europe and third countries, who will seek to exaggerate differences between us in order to divide us further, but they must not prevail. That Brexit is happening is bad enough.

The EU negotiating team has been clear: our intention is not to punish or sanction the British people in any way. This is why full transparency, openness in the negotiations and the role of the European Parliament will be so important. As talks proceed, the European Parliament will be fully involved and informed, as the withdrawal agreement will require our consent.

Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minister of Belgium, is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and the European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator