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Tears, hugs, emotional speeches and singing filled the European Parliament on Wednesday as lawmakers ratified the U.K.’s terms of departure from the EU, and took stock of the challenges facing the future relationship and the EU itself.
Pro-EU, British MEPs gave their, often emotional, final speeches to the parliament with some stating their hopes for the U.K. to one day return to the EU.
The vote, albeit considered a formality after the U.K. Parliament approved the Brexit deal earlier in January, was historic nonetheless. Many lawmakers reflected on the U.K.’s place in modern European history, from its role in liberating Europe in two World Wars to it joining the European Economic Community (an early incarnation of the EU) in 1973.
Questions were also raised over how and why the U.K. voted to leave, with soul-searching over the future over the U.K.-EU relationship and the EU itself as an institution.
Grief and regret
British Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato said “it is with grief and regret that I accept that we will leave the European Union on Friday. Oh no, here come the tears,” she said.
But we must keep the dream alive, especially for young people who are overwhelmingly pro-European. I hold in my heart the knowledge that one day I will be back in this chamber celebrating our return to the heart of Europe, thank you. Scott Cato said before breaking into tears along with several of her colleagues.
Not everyone was parting with a tear. Anti-EU MEP, Brexit campaigner and euroskeptic MEP Nigel Farage, a familiar antagonist in the European Parliament told the parliament:
What happens at 11pm this Friday 31 January 2020, marks the point of no return. Once we’ve left, we are never coming back, Farage said.
What do we want from Europe? If we want trade, friendship, cooperation and reciprocity we don’t need an European Commission, we don’t need a European Court, we don’t need all of these institutions, Farage said, reiterating his oft-stated phrase that “we love Europe, we just hate the European Union.
Farage’s microphone was cut off by the parliament’s vice president after he and a group of anti-EU British MEPs started flying British flags (flags are not allowed in parliament). Vice-president Mairead McGuinness told them “put your flags away, you are leaving.”
After the vote, MEPs marked the U.K.‘s exit by joining hands and singing ‘Auld Lang Syne.’
A small step
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said before the vote that the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ was just a step at the start of a new relationship with the U.K.
Just to be very clear, I want the EU and U.K. to stay good friends and good partners. The story is about old friends and new beginnings and we have a lot in common, she told lawmakers in the parliament.
Guy Verhofstadt, MEP and the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group coordinator, said it was a “sad day” to “see a country leaving that twice liberated us, twice given its blood to liberate Europe” referring to the two world wars.
“I think in this debate we cannot escape a key question, how could this happen?” he said. “How is it possible that more than 40 years after an enormous majority voted to enter into the European family … they decided to leave this European project.”
Verhofstadt called for a reforming of the European Union without the “opt-ins and opt-outs” (certain exceptions made in EU legislation for certain member states, like the U.K. had negotiated) and called for the union to be “more effective and democratic” for when, and if, the U.K. returned to the bloc in future. Ahead of the vote, Verhofstadt said “this vote is not an adieu, it is only an au revoir.”
Most speakers from various political groups highlighted that the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU won’t be the end of the road of relationship. Debate also focused on lessons to be learnt from Brexit that should shape the future of the EU.
Many also warned that the negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the U.K. are going to be difficult, especially within the tight timeframe of 11 months in which a future relationship and trade deal is to be negotiated.
Both sides would like a trade deal that maintains as much “frictionless trade” as possible, with the EU saying it is willing to offer the U.K. an “unique” free trade agreement in which there are zero tariffs on goods, zero quotas (limiting the amount of goods) and no trade barriers, but that continuing access to the single market will depend on what conditions and rules the U.K. is willing to accept.
The precondition is that European and British businesses continue to compete on a level playing field, we certainly will not expose our companies to unfair competition, Ursula von der Leyen reiterated on Wednesday.
Ending her speech by quoting the English novelist and poet George Eliot, Von der Leyen said ”‘Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depth of love,’ we will always love you and we will never be far, long live Europe.”
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