Theresa May’s empty chair at the European Union’s 60th birthday party was a tragic symbol of the United Kingdom’s waning influence in Europe. Failing to attend this party was a diplomatic blunder that will not help get our Brexit negotiations off to a good start.
I have not given up hope that the British people will change their minds about staying in the EU when they see what Brexit actually means. Even after the prime minister starts the formal divorce talks tomorrow, it will still not be too late to think again. But pro-European Brits clearly face an uphill struggle.
If we hadn’t absented ourselves from the EU’s birthday party and were not planning to quit Europe’s top table for good, this is the speech our prime minister should give:
“Europe has a huge amount to celebrate today. After the carnage of the first and second world wars, we now have peace and prosperity across most of our continent. After the nightmares of communism and fascism, most Eastern and Southern European countries have been brought into the family of democratic nations.
“But as we celebrate, we must also realize that we have many problems. Everywhere we look beyond our frontiers there is trouble: authoritarian regimes in Russia and Turkey; war in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Libya; oppression in Palestine; turmoil in most of North Africa. And now, in the White House, we have a president more keen to suck up to the Kremlin than shake hands with Europe.
“We are an oasis, but a threatened one. We know what mischief Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan can cause. We know how millions of people are on the move in the Middle East, Africa and Asia as a result of war, famine or just because they are seeking better lives – and how Europe is a magnet for them. We know how terrorists can penetrate our defenses – in Paris, Brussels, Nice and, most recently, at our Houses of Parliament last week.
“We also know that globalization and advances in technology are creating losers as well as winners. Entire communities are blighted by unemployment or left behind by progress elsewhere. It’s hardly surprising there’s a populist backlash.
“The solution is not to dismantle the EU but to make it work better. In some cases, this means Brussels doing less. More Europe is not the answer to every problem.
“But in other cases, we need to work more closely together. We must extend the single market to the newest and liveliest industries so we generate good jobs for younger generations. We need to crack down on multinational tax cheats. We must track down jihadis. We need a joined-up political and economic plan to stabilize North Africa and the Middle East. And we need a strong European front to stand up against Putin.
“Britain has a lot to bring to the party. We have one of Europe’s strongest economies, best intelligence agencies and powerful military forces. As Europe faces the challenges and opportunities of the next 60 years, we will be there standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest of you.”
* Hugo Dixon is co-founder of Common Ground and founder and editor-in-chief of InFacts.