In a “love letter” to the UK, Frans Timmermans admits that “so much unnecessary damage” has been inflicted on both sides during the bitter exit negotiations and said he fears more will follow.
It comes as Boris Johnson prepares to legally sever ties with the bloc on 31 January after winning the healthiest Conservative majority at a general election since Margaret Thatcher’s last victory at the ballot box.
Just before MPs departed the House of Commons for the Christmas recess, the prime minister’s Brexit deal passed its first hurdle with a thumping majority of 124 – paving the way for the legislation to clear parliament by mid-January.
It is expected that negotiations over the future relationship between the EU and the UK will begin in earnest the following month as both sides attempt to thrash out a free trade agreement before Mr Johnson’s strict December 2020 deadline.
Addressing Brexit, Mr Timmermans wrote in The Guardian that the decision to leave “breaks my heart”, but added: “I respect that decision. You were in two minds about it, like you have always been in two minds about the EU.
He continued: “I wish you had stuck to that attitude, it served you well and it kept all of us in better shape. Was it necessary to force the issue? Not at all. But you did. And the sad thing is, I see it is hurting you. Because the two minds will still be there, even after you have left. In the process so much unnecessary damage has been to you, and all of us. And I fear more will follow.
“Truth be told, I felt deeply hurt when you decided to leave. Three years later I am just sad that a member of our family wants to sever our ties. But at the same time I find comfort in the thought that family ties can never really be severed.
“We’re not going away and you will always be welcome to come back.”
In his letter to Britain, Mr Timmermans, who is the deputy of the new European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, also says he first grew to love the UK as he attended a British school in Italy as a teenager.
“Britain was always there,” he wrote. “As part of me. Being at one of your schools made me more Dutch than before. Because there is no better way to be made aware of your own culture than by being immersed in another.”
He continued: “And at the same time, that immersion leaves traces. What you inhale and absorb remains: an extra layer, a sediment that partly merged with what was already there and partly remains distinguishable and unique.
“I know you now. And I love you. For who you are and what you gave me. I’m like an old lover. I know your strengths and weaknesses. I know you can generous but also miserly.”