Your country has just left the European Union, after 47 years of life together.
It is the result of the sovereign decision the British people expressed in the referendum of June 2016, a democratic choice France has always respected.
Yet I must also tell you, as an ally and, even more, as a friend and true European, how deeply sad I am at this departure. And I am thinking, today, of the millions of Britons — from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — who still feel deeply attached to the European Union. I am thinking of the hundreds of thousands of French citizens in the UK and British citizens in France who are wondering about their rights and their future: I assure them that we will protect them.
I must tell you, too, that this departure is a shock for Europeans. It is the first time a country has left the European community. The UK was not there when it took its first steps in 1950, but we owe it so much — Winston Churchill’s historic foresight, for a start. And since 1973, while our European relationships may at times have been turbulent, the UK has been a central player in the European project — particularly in building the single market –, a more influential player than the British have often themselves imagined.
This departure has to be a shock, because there is nothing trivial about it. We must understand the reasons for it and learn lessons from it. The rejection of a Europe which political leaders, in the UK and elsewhere, have too often blamed for all evils, to avoid having to deal with their own failures — that’s one reason. Another is, let’s acknowledge this, the consequence of a Europe seen as not effective enough, not protective enough, distant from the realities of daily life.
I am convinced therefore that Europe needs new momentum, in a world where the need for control, security and protection is stronger than ever. Perhaps you’ll tell me it is no longer your problem? I do not believe that for a minute, because the UK has no interest in a weak European Union. I fight every day, and will continue to do so, for this united, sovereign and democratic Europe, whose strength will make our continent strong.
In this respect, I know the feeling — however you voted in 2016 — that France was “tough” from the start of the Brexit negotiation. I wanted to defend the existential principles of the way the European Union functions: compliance with our rules within the single market, European unity, and stability in Ireland. These are not bureaucratic inflexibilities but the very foundations of the European edifice. But never has France or the French people — or, I think it is fair to say, any European people — been driven by a desire for revenge or punishment.
It is in this spirit of mutual respect and commitment to the European Union and with such powerful ties between our two countries that we must look to the future and build our new relationship.
The British government wishes to move swiftly forward; we are ready for this. It is in our common interest to define as close and deep a partnership as possible in defence and security, and in police, judicial, environmental, scientific and cultural cooperation. At the same time let me be honest, as I have always been: ease of access to the European market will depend on the degree to which the European Union’s rules are accepted, because we cannot allow any harmful competition to develop between us.
More directly, I would like to begin a new chapter between our two countries, based on the strength of our unrivalled ties. This year we will celebrate the 80th anniversary of General de Gaulle’s 18 June Appeal: the French know what they owe the British, who allowed our Republic to live. I am coming to London in June to award the city the Légion d’Honneur, in tribute to the immense courage of a whole country and people. Ten years on from the Lancaster House Agreement, we must deepen our defence, security and intelligence cooperation. I would also like Prime Minister Boris Johnson and I to draw on history to boldly build new, ambitious projects, as when the Channel Tunnel finally — physically — connected our two countries.
Dear British friends, you are leaving the European Union but you are not leaving Europe. Nor are you becoming detached from France or the friendship of its people. The Channel has never managed to separate our destinies; Brexit will not do so, either.
At 11.00 p.m. last night we did not say “goodbye”, but an early “good morning”.