So Long, Farewell

A transcript of Ursula von der Leyen’s remarks on Brexit

A pro-EU message projected onto the cliffs in Ramsgate, southern England on Jan. 31.
A pro-EU message projected onto the cliffs in Ramsgate, southern England on Jan. 31. Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

At 11 p.m. local time Friday, the United Kingdom will officially leave the European Union—making Brexit, for which British citizens voted in a 2016 referendum, a reality. Ahead of Brexit Day, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, had some words for the departing nation. She warned that the United Kingdom would have to uphold European values for continued special access to the European trade zone while also promising that the EU would do its best to work with its former member. After the United Kingdom departs the union, the real work of making sure all that happens will begin.

The full transcript is below.

Honorable members,

As president of the European Commission, first of all, I want to pay tribute to all those British people who contributed so much to almost half a century of British EU membership.

And I think of all those who helped to build our institutions. People like Commissioner Arthur Cockfield, who was known as the “father of our single market.” Or Roy Jenkins, president of the European Commission, who did so much to pave the way for our single currency.

I think of these thousands of European civil servants of British nationality who devoted their lives and their careers to Europe and have done so much to build our union. They will always stay part of our family.

And I think of all those years, so many British MEPs [members of the European Parliament] have contributed to making this parliament and the union strong.

You have our gratitude and our respect—even more so for your resilience in the last three and a half years.

We will miss you, but we will always keep up our friendship with you. And you can count on us—as we know that we can count on you.

Honorable members,

In the last plenary session, we discussed the issue of citizens’ rights. We will also be vigilant on the implementation of the agreement in Northern Ireland. The power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland gives us hope that a spirit of cooperation will continue to mark relations across the border.

Yet the withdrawal agreement is only a first step. From now on, it is about our new partnership with the United Kingdom. The negotiations are about to start.

Just to be very clear: I want the European Union and the United Kingdom to stay good friends and good partners. The story is about old friends and new beginnings. And we have a lot in common.

We both believe that climate change needs to be fought as a matter of urgency. There is still scope to address these risks, but the window of opportunity is closing. So let us join forces in protecting our planet.

We both understand that it takes very little power to break a fragile balance and to turn it into a full-blown conflict but that the true power lies in putting the pieces back together. Therefore, we both believe in the power of development cooperation, and we know that our security is interlinked, and here, too, we should join forces.

For all these and many other reasons, we want to forge a close partnership.

But we also know that we have to sort out how to deal with the United Kingdom as a third country.

When it comes to trade, we are considering a free trade agreement with zero tariffs and zero quotas. This would be unique. No other free trade agreement offers such an access to our single market.

But the precondition is that European and British businesses continue to compete on a level playing field. We will certainly not expose our companies to unfair competition.

And it is very clear. The trade-off is simple: The more the U.K. does commit to uphold our standards for social protection and workers’ rights, our guarantees for the environment, and other standards and rules ensuring fair competition, the closer and better their access to the single market.

And let me say that, just days ago, some of the largest business associations in Britain—particularly in the car and aerospace industry—asked their government to retain EU standards and rules. I think this is in our mutual interest.

This is about jobs. It is about common solutions for the world market. And I believe that the United Kingdom and the European Union have a mutual interest in the closest possible partnership.

Honorable Members,

No new partnership will bring back the benefits of being part of the same union. But we have the duty to seek the best for the British and for the European people in a post-Brexit world.

On our side, we will seek the best for industries and farmers across our continent who ask for predictability. We will seek our best for young British and young European students who want to study and who want to live across the [English] Channel. And we will seek the best for all the researchers and scientists who want to explore the unknown and work for common solutions together in the European Union as well as the United Kingdom.

We will devote all our energy, 24/7, to come to results.

And to our British friends and many—perhaps not all, but many—of our British MEPs here in the room, I want to use the words of the famous poet George Eliot. She said: “Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.”

We will always love you, and we will never be far.

Long live Europe!


This transcript is taken from the website of the European Commission.

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