Dutch politician says that, despite the Brexit referendum, people still remember “Britain’s heroic stand in 1940 and 1941” and remain drawn to “Britain’s cultural magnetism” and so would gladly accept the return of Europe’s ‘Prodigal Son’, writes Christine Jardine.
Sometimes it’s only when you say something out loud that you really, fully comprehend it.
In the middle of a TV interview about Brexit, I said: “Generations will judge us on the decisions we take over the next few weeks.”
With escalating chaos over Brexit, the absence of any leadership from the UK Government and a looming budget based on an economic future on which we can only speculate, I’m not sure that judgement will be favourable.
After the interview, I headed to a speech by a visiting EU politician with the latest pronouncements from Brexiteers swirling round in my head. The EU is making it difficult. No-deal is now our only option. The Prime Minister isn’t going to get a deal that parliament will accept. The Irish Border issue is impossible.
At the same time, I was tormented by the thought that all the Prime Minister has to do is compromise – agree to stay in the Customs Union and there is no problem with the Irish border, or Gibraltar for that matter.
But would that be what people want? Is any of this debacle what anyone wanted? And what about the EU? Do they now just want to see the back of us?
Then I listened to Rob Jetten.
He is a 31-year-old member of the Dutch Parliament who has just been elected as the leader of one of the Lib Dems’ sister liberal parties in the Netherlands, the D66.
This second youngest political leader in Dutch history was in Westminster to speak to a group of MPs and Peers.
Listening to him reminded me of why I have always cherished what some dismiss as the ‘European Project’ as he likened our relationship with the EU to the biblical tale of the Prodigal Son.
Although I’m not religious, I do remember the story from school. A wrestless son demands his inheritance to leave his family and make his own way in the world.
I wondered at first if this was to be a warning. That, like the son, we would find ourselves falling on hard times, our wealth squandered, and then come back, our proverbial tail between our legs. But I was wrong.
What Jetten used it to illustrate was the strength of familial feeling towards us on the continent, and the hope that we will yet again exhibit our traditional ability to grasp success from failure.
In the midst of the current disputes, some might question that feeling, but Jetten was insistent.
We have, he reminded us, been an integral part of that EU family for 45 years, a relationship built on international pain and British resolution.
Yes, the Dutch too pin the need for the EU on our joint experiences in the first half of the 20th century and especially: “... Britain’s heroic stand in 1940 and 1941.”
“It was,” he said, “in Britain that our Government and resistance movement sought and found refuge. There are few Dutch cities and towns which do not enshrine memories of British bravery.”
And, talking about more recent times, he described “Britain’s cultural magnetism” as collapsing an already minimal distance between our countries.
There is also a recognition on the continent that the EU has to move forward. Reform itself. Improve.
All of that is why, according to Jetten, there is apparently, a widespread hope in EU capitals that we will somehow grasp the opportunity to escape Brexit and return, somehow, to our family.
It’s a hope that was reflected this weekend in the descent of countless thousands of Britons on London to call for a People’s Vote, a chance to say whether the product of this Tory-induced debacle is what anyone, both remain or leave supporter, actually wants.
I’m as aware as anyone that we still do not know what that final end product will look like. Ridiculous isn’t it? We are more than two years on from the vote, already passed the point at which we had been told it would all be settled and signed, but still completely in the darkness about our nation’s, our children’s, our own future.
It’s time for ministers to knuckle down and get some answers.
But whatever happens, if a deal is reached or not, they must remember that democracy did not end on 24 June 2016. And increasingly, as the weekend showed, the public are the ones shouting loudest for that final say. A vote on the deal itself.
But how does that fit with Jetten’s recounting of the tale of the Prodigal Son?
In the story, we are told of a man with two sons. One day the younger son suddenly demands his share of the estate, walks away from home and squanders his wealth in wild living. After a while, dejected by the failure of his adventure, he decides to return home.
His father is beside himself with joy and prepares a feast. The other brother, who had stayed behind loyally working the fields, turns angry. Why reward such disloyal foolishness?
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
As Rob put it, our European family doesn’t want us dead, doesn’t want us lost, and doesn’t want payback.
They want us back. I wonder then if future generations might judge us more favourably.