The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, gave her big speech on EU-UK relations at the London School of Economics today.
Having attended the LSE in her youth, she conjured up fond memories of hours whiled away in “Soho bars and Camden record shops.” She added that following the Brexit referendum she’d thought a lot about her time in London. That’s nice, but I wonder how much it helped her understand why the country as a whole voted to leave.
Did it not occur to her why she was making the speech in the first place? There wouldn’t be a Brexit if so much of Britain beyond London hadn’t felt so alienated from the European project. But there was no attempt at self-examination, no facing-up to the discontents that led to the UK’s departure — and to ongoing populist revolts in left-behind regions across the Continent.
Here she was, picking up the pieces of the EU’s biggest set-back to date, and her opening gambit was a tribute to the one bit of Britain that Brussels never had to worry about.
Of course, her speech was about the future not the past — and the new relationship that now has to be forged between the EU and the UK. But she should have given it in one of the places where the old relationship had most obviously broken down. I don’t know how delightful the record shops are in Sunderland, but that could have provided a more relevant venue — a local car plant for instance.
It would have added an edge to her comments on the forthcoming trade negotiations.
Yet trade was not the main focus of her speech. Noting the shortness of the time available for the next phase of talks, she said it would be necessary to prioritise. She then went on to signal what those priorities might be: Firstly, the security and foreign policy relationship between the UK and EU; and, secondly, co-operation on climate change and the “European Green Deal”.
Well, fine. The UK has a lot of shared interests with the EU on these issues. For instance, we could use the negotiations to ask von der Leyen’s former colleagues in the German government to stop burning their filthy brown coal and quit building gas pipelines with Vladimir Putin.
No mention of these inconvenient truths in the speech, of course — just the EU’s vision for a better world. But never mind, at least she offered Britain a supporting role in achieving it. In particular, she made an appeal to the younger generation: “You can choose collaboration over isolation. You can shape your Continent’s destiny. You hold your governments accountable.”
It was perfectly-crafted message — for a remainery, metropolitan audience. But if EU leaders are serious about the achieving a true partnership with the UK, then at some point they need to reach out to the rest of us.