Guy Verhofstadt thinks Brexit is a ‘disaster’, a ‘tragedy’ and a ‘catastrophe’. That verdict, from the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, won’t surprise many. But Verhofstadt has a solution to what he sees as a looming crisis for despairing Remain voters. During his interview on the Today programme this morning, he brought up the prospect of British citizens being allowed to keep their EU benefits as part of a ‘special arrangement’. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this pitch from Verhofstadt.
Back in November, the Belgian touted the idea that Brits could pay a fee to retain free movement and a vote in EU elections. ‘Many say ‘we don’t want to cut our links’, he told the Times. Now the ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of letters he has received have stiffened his resolve. Verhofstadt says these people are telling him:
‘I am a UK citizen I don’t want to lose my relationship with Europe and with European civilisation. So emotion is now coming up in all those voters who want to remain in European Union and they have the feeling that…nobody is defending them any more…they are losing a part of that identity and it is for that reason that I am trying to convince the European Union…to take this on board, this feeling of UK citizens.’
Of course, it is the case that some Brits don’t want to cut ties with the European Union. This is a sensible enough point to make. But there are two problems with what Verhofstadt has said. Firstly, as some have pointed out, there is a danger that this could create, as the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen put it, ‘two classes of UK citizen’. There is also a bigger issue with the way Verhofstadt frames his argument. It’s true that the benefits of being an ‘EU citizen’ – such as free movement across Europe – might be at stake. What’s not at stake, however, are all the trappings of ‘European civilisation’. Verhofstadt says that those who have written to him say: ‘I don’t want to lose my relationship with Europe and European civilisation’. They needn’t worry: European civilisation has existed for thousands of years; the EU is barely out of its fifth decade. This is a clear attempt to merge the European Union with the broader idea of ‘European civilisation’ and we shouldn’t fall for it.