The outpouring of solidarity and sympathy for Britain from Europe after the Westminster attacks has clearly touched Theresa May. The French President François Hollande was first on the phone to her and the Eiffel Tower lights were switched off as a symbol of France standing with Britain. A Spanish teacher was killed and three French students were injured. Not just Westminster but European values and European citizens were at the heart of the attack.
May has a chance to thank Europe and to say that the UK stands firm in the struggle against Islamist ideology, which has claimed victims in France, Belgium and Germany in the last year and now London. She could go to Rome where all of Europe is gathered for Saturday’s 60th birthday of the Treaty of Rome.
Originally she said she would not turn up. Given the referendum vote and her so far uncompromising insistence on an amputational Brexit, this may seem a wise choice. But is it? The French say les absents ont toujours tort and May’s absence may indeed be wrong.
Whatever happens at the end of Article 50 negotiations and beyond, the fact is that the UK has been a signatory member of the European Treaties for far longer than the majority of all EU member states. To begin with, of course, Britain was absent. When invited to join the European Coal and Steel Community, Clement Attlee described it as “an irresponsible body appointed by no one and accountable to no one”. His Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was more colourful in his rejection of European integration: “Once we open that Pandora’s Box all sorts of Trojan horses will jump out,” he warned.
What experts have said about Brexit
What experts have said about Brexit
1/11 Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond
The Chancellor claims London can still be a world financial hub despite Brexit “One of Britain’s great strengths is the ability to offer and aggregate all of the services the global financial services industry needs” “This has not changed as a result of the EU referendum and I will do everything I can to ensure the City of London retains its position as the world’s leading international financial centre.”
2/11 Yanis Varoufakis
Greece's former finance minister compared the UK relations with the EU bloc with a well-known song by the Eagles: “You can check out any time you like, as the Hotel California song says, but you can't really leave. The proof is Theresa May has not even dared to trigger Article 50. It's like Harrison Ford going into Indiana Jones' castle and the path behind him fragmenting. You can get in, but getting out is not at all clear”
3/11 Michael O’Leary
Ryanair boss says UK will be ‘screwed’ by EU in Brexit trade deals: “I have no faith in the politicians in London going on about how ‘the world will want to trade with us’. The world will want to screw you – that's what happens in trade talks,” he said. “They have no interest in giving the UK a deal on trade”
4/11 Tim Martin
JD Wetherspoon's chairman has said claims that the UK would see serious economic consequences from a Brexit vote were "lurid" and wrong: “We were told it would be Armageddon from the OECD, from the IMF, David Cameron, the chancellor and President Obama who were predicting locusts in the fields and tidal waves in the North Sea"
5/11 Mark Carney
Governor of Bank of England is 'serene' about Bank of England's Brexit stance: “I am absolutely serene about the … judgments made both by the MPC and the FPC”
6/11 Christine Lagarde
IMF chief urges quick Brexit to reduce economic uncertainty: “We want to see clarity sooner rather than later because we think that a lack of clarity feeds uncertainty, which itself undermines investment appetites and decision making”
7/11 Inga Beale
Lloyd’s chief executive says Brexit is a major issue: "Clearly the UK's referendum on its EU membership is a major issue for us to deal with and we are now focusing our attention on having in place the plans that will ensure Lloyd's continues trading across Europe”
8/11 Colm Kelleher
President of US bank Morgan Stanley says City of London ‘will suffer’ as result of the EU referendum: “I do believe, and I said prior to the referendum, that the City of London will suffer as result of Brexit. The issue is how much”
9/11 Richard Branson
Virgin founder believes we've lost a THIRD of our value because of Brexit and cancelled a deal worth 3,000 jobs: We're not any worse than anybody else, but I suspect we've lost a third of our value which is dreadful for people in the workplace.' He continued: "We were about to do a very big deal, we cancelled that deal, that would have involved 3,000 jobs, and that’s happening all over the country"
10/11 Barack Obama
US President believes Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU: "It is absolutely true that I believed pre-Brexit vote and continue to believe post-Brexit vote that the world benefited enormously from the United Kingdom's participation in the EU. We are fully supportive of a process that is as little disruptive as possible so that people around the world can continue to benefit from economic growth"
11/11 Kristin Forbes
American economist and an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England argues that the economy had been “less stormy than many expected” following the shock referendum result: “For now…the economy is experiencing some chop, but no tsunami. The adverse winds could quickly pick up – and merit a stronger policy response. But recently they have shifted to a more favourable direction”
The planning meeting for the Treaty of Rome took place on Messina in 1956. Again the British prime minister was absent. Instead, a Board of Trade official was sent, who told the Europeans present at the creation of what is now the EU: “Gentlemen, you are trying to negotiate something you will never be able to negotiate. But if negotiated, it will not be ratified. And if ratified it will not work.” Thus spake Britannia.
Once Britain joined Europe in 1973 it had to wait for Margaret Thatcher to find a prime minister who energetically took part as an ever-present European player. To be sure, she waved her handbag and got her money back in Fontainebleau in 1984. Barely noticed at the time, however, was her agreement to a major increase in the European budget. In 1984, the UK paid £656m to Brussels. By 1990, this had risen to £2.54bn.
At Fontainebleau, Thatcher called for a European Common Foreign and Security Policy and the following year powered through the Single European Act abolishing national vetoes, thus becoming the midwife of the Single Market and its four freedoms. In consequence, 1,000 Japanese firms located in the UK and every foreign bank, finance house, investment fund or insurance firm opened up in London as Britain became the gateway to the world’s biggest market.
So Theresa May would be advised to attend Rome and remind her fellow European leaders of the great contribution Britain has made to Europe – and how, with good will and sensible compromises on all sides, this can be maintained even as the UK withdraws from formal Treaty membership. The joint struggle against terrorism and against menaces emanating from Russia will be there long after the Article 50 negotiations are over. A friendly word and a smile goes a long way, especially after the Dutch election and the likelihood of a Europhile President Macron in the Elysée.
There are plenty of low-cost flights to Rome as Easyjet and Ryanair only exist thanks to the EU. May can go there and be back in a few hours and begin the overdue process of winning friends and influencing European leaders before it is too late.
Denis MacShane is the former minister of Europe and author of ‘Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe’Reuse content