Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium chosen to represent the European Parliament in Brexit negotiations, has told Al Jazeera that “a Little Englander mindset” could be “a good explanation” for Britain’s vote to Leave the European Union (EU) last June.
Al Jazeera anchor Mehdi Hasan, a former political editor at The New Statesman and The Huffington Post, asked Verhofstadt several leading questions on whether the Brexit vote was a consequence of British “xenophobia”.
“Why do you think the Brits voted to quit the EU last June in that historic referendum?” Hasan asked. “What drove them? How much of it was just fear of the unknown, of foreigners, of immigrants, xenophobia?”
Verhofstadt acknowledged that voters backed Brexit “mainly because of the migration, that’s very clear”.
“Anti-immigration sentiment? Xenophobia?” Hasan pressed.
“Yeah, no, more than that,” Verhofstadt replied. “Anti-labour mobility inside the European Union. You know, the story of the Polish plumber, taking and picking the jobs of British workers … in reality, you have to know, labour mobility in the European Union is low.”
Official figures suggest there are at least 2.3 million EU migrants working in Britain – equivalent to the entire population of Northern Ireland plus enough people left over to fill a city the size of Bristol – but the true number may be far higher.
For the avoidance of any doubt, Hasan asked Verhofstadt to confirm for a final time that the Brexit vote was driven by racist attitudes.
“You think it was a kind of Little Englander mindset? We don’t want foreigners living here, we’re going to get out of this foreign project?”
“Yeah, that’s maybe a good explanation,” the MEP agreed.
Verhofstadt also called on the EU to respond to the election of Donald Trump in the United States by becoming “a real union, not a loose confederation of nation-states”, claiming that support for federalist projects like a European Army are supported by a majority of citizens “even in Britain”.
Verhofstadt was appearing on the controversial Qatari-funded Al Jazeera to plug his new book, Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union.
Brexit campaign leader Nigel Farage was appalled by the choice of Verhofstadt as the European Parliament’s representative in Brexit negotiations, saying he couldn’t “think of a man more insulting towards the British, our standing in the world, or even the concept of nation-state democracy”.
“They just could not have picked a human being more negative to what we are trying to do. In the European temple of federalism, he is the high priest.”