Tuesday

1st Dec 2020

EU Parliament bids tearful farewell to British MEPs

  • British Labour MEP Richard Corbett was first elected to the parliament in 1996 (Photo: European Parliament)

MEPs bid farewell to their British colleagues in an emotional day at the European Parliament on Wednesday (29 January), as lawmakers voted to adopt the Brexit divorce deal, two days before the UK leaves the bloc.

The withdrawal agreement passed with 621 votes, with 49 against and 13 abstentions in the final act of the ratification process three and a half years after the Brexit referendum.

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After the vote, MEPs stood up and sang "Auld Lang Syne" a traditional British farewell song, with some joining hands, others holding up a EU-UK football scarf with "Always United" written on it.

In a debate filled with many tears - and some smears - British MEPs pledged to come back while pro-Brexit MEPs promised never to return.

The British MEPs "brought charm, wit, intelligence, sometimes also stubbornness in this house," the parliament's Brexit point man, MEP Guy Verhofstadt said before the vote. "In the name of all of us I can only say, we will miss you", he added.

He hailed Britain's central role in Europe saying the British "twice liberated us, gave its blood to liberate Europe".

Brexit party MEP Nigel Farage, who has campaigned for two decades to take the UK out of the EU, said that the day marks an end to a "47 year political experiment that the British have never been very happy with".

"Once we've left we are never coming back and the rest frankly is detail. We're going, we will be gone," he said waving a British flag along with his over two dozen Brexit party MEPs.

In a dramatic scene, Irish MEP and parliament vice-president Mairead McGuinness chairing the debate warned Farage that waving a flag goes against EU rules.

"Sit down, put your flags away, you're leaving, and take them with you," she said.

A few far-right and eurosceptic MEPs supported Farage and his party, but mostly the day was about emotional farewells, goodbye hugs and genuinely moving gestures.

"Now is not the time to campaign to rejoin, but we must keep the dream alive, especially for young people, who are overwhelmingly pro-European," Green MEP Molly Scott Cato told her fellow MEPs in her farewell speech.

"I hold in my heart the knowledge that I will be back at this chamber, celebrating our return to the heart of Europe," she said before breaking down in tears.

Labour MEP Richard Corbett said it is a heartbreaking and heartwarming day seeing the solidarity of his colleagues, emphasising that the parliament could not have expanded its power over the preveious decades without the work of the UK MEPs.

"I feel very sad, this is a day I never wanted to see although it has always been on the cards," MEP Seb Dance, one of the 72 MEPs departing, told EUobserver.

He said he will miss the colleagues from all over the world, who had been inspired by the EU and the "masses of things" he could learn from his colleagues.

"I have been living in denial ever since the referendum," commission vice-president Frans Timmermans confessed earlier on Wednesday, at the Socialists & Democrats group's farewell event for Labour MEPs.

He said he hoped that by some miracle Brexit wouldn't happen, and that "the country that invented common sense, will come to common sense".

Foreshadowing tough talks on the future relationship, commission president Ursula von der Leyen received the biggest jeer from Brexiteers when she said the EU will not expose its companies to unfair competition and will insist on a level playing field.

"When it comes to trade, we're considering a free trade agreement with zero tariffs and zero quotas. This would be unique. But the precondition is that EU and UK businesses continue to compete on a level playing field," she said.

Next Monday the commission will propose a negotiating mandate and once member states agree on it, negotiations on the trade deal can start in early March.

Microphone switched off

Farewells were also in order at the council of member states a few hundred metres away from the parliament. Katrina Williams, the UK's deputy permanent representative took part in Britain's last council meeting.

"History. Switching off the UK microphone for the very last time in coreper 1 [a council formation]. Over and Out….," she later tweeted.

MEPs pledged that Brexit will not be the beginning of the unravelling the EU, that the bloc will learn the lessons and emerge stronger from Brexit.

French MEP Nathalie Loiseau, the former Europe minister, who delivered her speech "exceptionally" in English, told Brexiteers there are "no hard feelings".

"You will have no-one to blame for the future of your country, especially not Brussels. You are in charge, but trust me if some of you think the next phase is the weakening of the EU we will prove you dead wrong," she added.

Verhofstadt warned that Brexit did not start with the 2016 referendum, but with the EU giving exceptions to the UK "with opt-outs, opt-ins, and rebates".

"It is also our failure. The lesson to learn is not to undo the union, this lesson is to deeply reform the union, to make it a real union," he added.

Green group co-chair Philippe Lamberts said EU decision-makers have to realise that the reason for increasing euroscepticism is that far too often "policies have served the interest of the few rather than the many".

"We need to fix this, if we want to avoid the repetition of Brexit happening," he said.

EU sighs relief after 'decisive' Johnson victory in UK

The remaining 27 EU countries also told the UK to quickly ratify the withdrawal agreement, and start negotiations on future trade. The EU is keen to protect its own interests and prevent unfair competition from Britain.

EU gears up for post-Brexit renovation

Both EU member states and the parliament want to be ready in January with an agreement on how to involve citizens in a serious attempt to rethink the future of the EU. But institutional issues would come first.

Boost for Right in post-Brexit EU parliament

The far-right Identity and Democracy will overtake the Greens as the fourth-largest party in the European Parliament on 1 February, after the UK's MEPs vacate their seats.

What will Brexit mean for climate action in EU and UK?

The UK is leaving the EU after playing a key role in climate action - just as COP26 comes to Glasgow. With so many policy negotiations ahead, a split between London and Brussels post-Brexit could undermine the 2050 emissions-neutrality goal.

Agenda

Second phase of Brexit starts This WEEK

In its first week without the UK, the EU will reveal how it wants to negotiate future relations with London, will propose a new enlargement methodology to calm Paris, and MEPs will hear from EU chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi.

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