'Don't give up' on remaining - EU Council president

The outgoing European Council president has made a forthright speech in which he gave frank views on Brexit and on President Macron, whom he both praised and criticised.

Donald Tusk said he had been hearing all around the world, especially in countries that used to be part of the British Empire, the view that Brexit would make Britain “an outsider, a second-rate player”, and he hoped it could still be “turned around”.

The former Polish prime minister who was speaking at the opening of the academic year at the College of Europe in Bruges, also hailed President Macron as “our hope for the future”, while at the same time criticising his actions on European expansion and relations with Russia.

Mr Tusk, who steps down as European Council leader at the end of the month, said Margaret Thatcher had been a “heroine of my young years” and he recalled words she spoke during the same ceremony in 1988 when she regretted that “East of the Iron Curtain, peoples who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots”. When he met her shortly afterwards, there was a “feeling… that a new era of freedom and unity was coming,” he said.

“Unity” had also been his “obsession” in his role as president, he said, recalling how former Polish president Lech Walesa told him when he took office: “I just hope this union doesn’t fall apart with you there – it looks bad enough already”.

Mr Tusk became European Council president in December 2014, when David Cameron’s Conservatives were promising a Brexit referendum if they should be elected in 2015.

Speaking of Brexit, he said that he had done everything he could to avoid a “confrontational no-deal” and to “extend the time for reflection and a possible British change of heart”.

“I have been called a romantic and an anglophile, both terms in my opinion quite suitable and merited.”

Saying he envied John Bercow’s freedom to speak his mind since stepping down as Speaker of the House of Commons, Mr Tusk added that he would now say something he would not have dared to say previously for fear of being “fired for being too frank”.

Brexiters had said repeatedly they wanted a more global UK, and it could only be truly great alone, he said.

“You could hear in these voices a longing for the Empire.

“But the reality is exactly the opposite. Only as part of a united Europe can the UK play a global role, only together can we confront, without any complexes, the greatest powers of this world.

“…And the world knows it. I have heard the same in India, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa; that after its departure, the UK will become an outsider, a second-rate player, while the main battlefield will be occupied by China, the United States and the European Union.

“…One of my English friends is probably right when he says with melancholy that Brexit is the real end of the British Empire.”

Mr Tusk asked whether, at the general election, things can “still be turned around”.

He said German philosopher Hannah Arendt had taught that things become irreversible only when people start to think so.

“So the only words that come to my mind today are simply: Don’t give up. In this match, we had added time, we are already in extra time, perhaps it will even go to penalties?”

Speaking of Mr Macron, he called him “one of the undisputed leaders of the European Union and our hope for the future and my dear friend”.

He said he shared the French president’s dream of a “truly sovereign Europe”, however, criticising his decision last month to block the opening of EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, he said this sovereignty could only be achieved with a stable, integrated Balkans and an independent Ukraine.

“Our tough and consistent stance on Russia was the first expression, so clear and unambiguous, of our sovereignty,” Mr Tusk said.

He said he had no doubt that Russian President Putin’s goal was to regain control over the former USSR territories and to weaken the EU.

“This is why when I hear Macron's words, that ‘we must reconsider our position with Russia, to rethink the strategic relationship’, I can only express hope that it will not happen at the cost of our common dreams about Europe's sovereignty.”

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