Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to speak at this venue today.
Brexit has been one of the most discussed topics in recent months – another „crisis“, „the sign of the EU falling apart“, but in many countries actually a decision that made people realize how important the EU is and increase their support for the Union. But what has really happened so far? Mostly all talk and not much action. Since the referendum in June, the UK has treated us with a long period of silence. Or was it perhaps the calm before the storm? First somewhat concrete step towards the actual Brexit was Prime Minister May’s speech a few weeks ago.But we expected more.
While the speech might have offered assurances to the domestic audience, there was very little information for us listening across the Channel. At the very least however, we have moved on from the often repeated “brexit means brexit” to “brexit means hard brexit”. The white paper published last week was again more of the same – nicely written seventy pages with very little tangible details and aimed at the domestic audience. To sum it up „Theresa May’s speech means Theresa May’s speech“. We are a bit confused – the main idea of a fairer, more open, and more Global Britain seems nice on paper, but how do you want to be open when one of the key elements of the plan is to stop the inflow of bright and hardworking people from all over the world that invested so much of their energy into making Britain great? How do you want to “reach beyond Europe” when your plan is to close yourself up and when you are best friends with a man who is basing his new administration on cutting his international ties? Once more, Theresa May mentioned the abuse of the freedom of movement as the reason for this plan.
A quick fact check – studies have repeatedly shown this is not the case. Yet here we are. Still wasting our time explaining these alternative facts but these claims still a part of the “reasoning”. But I will come back to this. Before the referendum last year, the EU tried to find a compromise that would prove to the UK citizens the benefits of membership in the EU. Did the referendum go the way it did because the EU-27 did not do enough or was it because there wasn’t enough interest in the UK to explain the realities of the EU to the domestic audience? It’s a seemingly obscure question, but still one of great importance as we once again find ourselves at the negotiating table. Should we pre-emptively assume that no matter what compromise we strive towards, the British audience will not be willing to listen to relevant facts and the political reality will win over the reality without adjectives?Having said that I would like to talk about our most and least preferred options and eventual outcomes of the whole process.
First, let’s talk about what we would have wanted and will probably never get. There are many things that we would have liked to see regarding the UK in the EU. Mainly, UK staying in the EU, of course. The second best option would be the UK fully participating in the internal market with all four freedoms being applied without prejudice. We would also like to see the UK fulfilling its outstanding financial obligations and respecting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice that would ensure a legal certainty to all citizens and firms across Europe. Basically, take Theresa May’s speech, go step by step, and whatever she says, we would prefer it differently, making sure Europe and the UK remain closely connected. Unfortunately, many common projects are not in the cards anymore or, at the very least, are not likely to be achieved in full.
However, there is one thing that we can still agree on – defending our values and our continent. I am very pleased to see that Britain wants to still participate in common defence projects that help to fight against our common threats. We hope this is a thing where we can find a common ground. We live in a globalised world where threats are not bound to a specific location, but are primarily focused on destroying the foundations of our civilizations and values based on democracy and the respect to human rights. Whether we are talking about terrorism, organized crime or cyber threats, we have the same goals, which is to promote the prosperity of our economies and ensure security to our citizens. In this respect, I am sure we will still have a lot in common and should continue to work together – whether it is at the European level or through NATO. So at least here, we should be on the reasonably safe ground because we need each other.But there are many things we fear.
Hard Brexit itself is not what we would have wanted, but there is a good and bad way of doing it. The rhetoric that “no deal is better than a bad deal” is certainly the latter. The UK sometimes seems to be forgetting that it needs us too. Yes, UK is a big business partner for the EU, but so is the EU for the UK. This splendid isolation game regardless of the real consequences is dangerous. Establishment of both tariff and mainly non-tariff trade barriers may kill existing business ties. We also need to keep in mind that it is easier for European companies to rewire their business chains than for British companies. The UK’s ambitions to have trade relations as close as possible without being a part of the single market and the customs union are frankly speaking unrealistic. The EU cannot undermine the very principles on which the internal market was established and has to ensure a level playing field.
The possibility of cherry-picking is the biggest danger that would devalue the existing efforts of all Member States. We cannot allow unhindered access to the single market in areas that suit the UK and limit access to the UK market for European companies. There must be some “Give” for all the UK’s “Take”. This of course goes hand-in-hand with other issues – we also fear long running court battles on the outstanding commitments of the UK if the UK decides to simply walk. During these negotiations, we must stick to facts, especially at a time when populist half-truths and alternative facts seem to be ruling the media. Czechoslovakia managed to get divorced without much fuss. I believe we should strive for the similar effect here. Our legacy for future generations cannot be a world where the clock turned back a century and everybody is an enemy. However, we cannot achieve this if we continue to make unfounded claims about each other. I am speaking about the continuing and growing aggression towards other nationals, especially citizens from central Europe, in the UK. As I mentioned at the beginning, time and time again, numbers have shown that EU citizens contribute more to Britain’s economy than they take out. Even so, this alternative fact, or let’s call it what it is – a lie, once again re-surfaced in Theresa May’s speech. Let’s move beyond such tactics and build our new relationship on facts and respect, not populism and lies.
We have to be aware of all the implication now that the negotiation is fast approaching. Therefore, let me focus on our priorities. The Czech Republic is still part of the EU, no plans to leave – there won’t be any czexit or czechout hashtags any time soon – and we respect our common position. Our focus will be, to put it very simply, on people and money. On citizens’ rights and financial settlement. I am glad the UK also agrees that the status of people currently enjoying the freedom of movement privilege is one of the key issues that have to be addressed as soon as possible. We also have to do what’s best for our economy. After Brexit, there will be areas where the UK will be badly missed. We will keep pushing the pro-trade agenda and keep pushing for the deepening of the internal market. Speaking here on university grounds, I also cannot but mention the significant role the UK has played so far when it comes to higher education and research. While it’s not yet clear, what position the UK will take concerning its participation in programs aimed at supporting competitiveness such as Erasmus+ or Horizon 2020, one thing is for certain, without the UK’s participation, we face a possibility of European research suffering. I hope the UK will continue to participate in European research and university exchanges. Cooperation and mutual respect is the way to move forward.
To conclude, even though negotiations will not be evidently easy, one thing has to be said clearly. Neither the Czech Republic nor the EU has the intent to punish the UK for the legitimate decision of its citizens. We have tight historic ties; have been long-standing allies and I sincerely believe this will not change. We should leave this process as partners as well. Let me remind you that during World War II, the Czech government in exile had its base in London; similarly, Czech pilots played a role in the success of the Royal Air Force. We must not forget these key historic moments, we must remember the heroism of our ancestors and continue to work together. All the same time, the Czech Republic is a Member of the European Union and will continue to defend its principles and unity of the integration. We still believe moving forward together is the best available and most efficient option for us. As was once said, no man is an island… except for Britain, of course.
Thank you for your time and I wish us all luck for the interesting times that await us.