I recently read a wonderful book of love letters to Europe. And it made me contemplate my love for Britain. It just occurred to me that when I joined the European Economic Community, I was in one of your schools. Not in the attic, you don’t mind, but in Italy. More precisely, the British International School of St. George in Rome. I was 12 years old and still learning English. That year I also dressed in a kimono as one of the “lords of Japan” in Mikado, a school game. Mrs Alcock encouraged me not to sing too loud, so my false tones would be less audible. But she kept me on stage. I loved it. How I was glad to be part of the choir in my Fair Lady next year and the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland year after year.
More than 40 years have passed since then. So much has happened. My family returned to the Netherlands, studying there and in France. I got married, I became a father, I did military service, I worked as a diplomat, I got divorced and remarried, I was elected to Parliament, served in the government and now I am in the European Commission. Britain has always been there. As part of me. Being at one of your schools made me more Dutch than before. Because there is no better way to be aware of your own culture than to be immersed in another. At the same time, this immersion leaves traces. What you inhale and absorb remains: as an additional layer of sediment that has partially merged with what has already been and partly remains recognizable and unique.
You and we all have suffered so much unnecessary damage. And I’m afraid there will be more
I already know you. And I love you. For who you are and what you gave me. I’m like an old lover. I know your strengths and weaknesses. I know you can be generous, but also pathetic. I know you think you’re unique and different. And of course you are in many ways, but maybe less than you think. We will never speak of the rest of us as a “continent”. It helps you create the distance you think you need. But it also prevents you from seeing that we all need a little distance between us. All European nations are unique. Our differences are a source of admiration, surprise, discomfort, misunderstanding, ridicule, cartoon and yes, love.
These differences make us the most creative, productive, contented, and wealthiest families at best. At worst, our differences are manipulated to instill fear, spread superiority, and set one family member against another. Things then quickly get out of hand. We are also very, very good at it. That’s our legacy. That’s also who we are. And as a family, we have a duty to promote the best of the best and keep the worst times at bay. To date, the EU has been the most successful instrument to achieve this goal for all its mistakes.
You’ve decided to leave. It breaks my heart, but I respect this decision. You have had two ideas about this, as always about the European Union. I wish you would stick to this attitude, serve you well, and we all kept us in better shape. Was it necessary to enforce this problem? Not at all. But you did. And the sad thing is, I see it hurts. Because both minds will still be there, even after you leave. In this process, we and all of us have caused so much unnecessary damage. And I’m afraid there will be more.
In fact, I felt deeply hurt when you decided to leave. Three years later, I am sad that a member of our family wants to break our ties. At the same time, however, I find comfort in the idea that family ties can never really be broken. We will not leave and you will always be happy to come back.
• Frans Timmermans is Executive Vice President of the European Commission