Ancient Athens was the birthplace of democracy. The spiritual home of the political system that’s now championed day after day across Europe.
For the first time in recorded history citizens were allowed to directly have their say in politics as they discussed the issues of the day in the agora. It’s the modern version of that democratic process that millennia later saw the people of the UK decide to join the European Economic Community, and has now seen us withdraw.
For the British people, the decision to leave the European Union was born from a desire to gain greater control over the decisions that directly affected them. It was a vote to take our destiny back into our own hands again, and forge a different way in the world outside of the institutions of the EU. But it was not a rejection of Europe, or the important role we will continue to play within it.
So as I travel to Athens on Wednesday I want to set out some of the key messages that will underpin our future relationship with our friends here in Greece. Because now is the time to shift our focus to a positive shared vision of the future.
Firstly – that our citizens must be at the heart of everything we do. There are around 70,000 Greeks living in the UK and around 40,000 Brits in Greece. The links between the people of Greece and the UK are incredibly strong, and we greatly value the contribution Greek people make to British life. To our culture and society, to our universities, to our economy. We want this to continue.
For that very reason the UK made securing the rights of our citizens the number one priority in the first phase of negotiations. And thanks to imagination from both sides we’ve done just that.
In December we reached a deal that ensures Greeks living in the UK will have the same access to residency, healthcare, pensions, and work they’ve always had.
But our interests don’t just stop at those who have already made a different country their home. As Britain leaves the EU, we will design a new immigration policy in the national interest. But that policy will not be about pulling up the drawbridge – we will always welcome talented Greeks to the UK to contribute and work. Their continued access to the UK will, I hope, be underpinned by a second principle – a new broad and comprehensive economic partnership between the UK and the EU.
Our current trading relationship sees 15 percent of Greek exports to the EU go to the UK, and 12 percent of Greece’s imports from other EU member-states come from the UK. As two of the world’s key proponents of free trade – we know better than anyone that it’s in no-one’s interests to put up barriers. To make it harder for our businesses to trade in valuable goods and services.
But our pursuit of free trade must also be underpinned by fair practices – just as it is now. On Tuesday in Austria I made the case for the UK to lead a race to the top in global standards. Because we spearheaded the drive for fair competition while inside the European Union. And we’ll continue to champion it when we’re outside.
Despite some ill-informed briefings – the UK has no interest in leading a “race to the bottom” in standards and regulation. The final principle that should underpin our future partnership is our shared desire to protect and defend our continent. As British Prime Minister Theresa May set out at the weekend, it has always been the case that our security at home is best advanced through global cooperation. And as we leave the EU we are just as committed to Europe’s security in the future as we have been in the past. Europe’s security is our security and we are unconditionally committed to continue safeguarding it. So we want to ensure our authorities can continue to work with those in Greece to keep all of our citizens safe. And for our governments to continue to respond together to the security challenges that we face. Because the threats we face are borderless and ever changing.
So my message in Athens is that as we strike a new partnership with the EU, we should build on our shared values and strengths. And while Brexit may at times seem to strain our relationship – we should never lose sight of our ultimate goal. A deal that best protects not only our shared economic interests – but more importantly, our citizens’ safety.
David Davis is Britain’s secretary of state for exiting the European Union.