Angry MEPs gave Nigel Farage an easy ride today – a two hour debate on Brexit and not one mention of Iceland or last night’s football result. That’s not to say the debate wasn’t punctuated with heckling and jeers that the House of Commons would have been proud of. Martin Schulz at one stage had to plead with Members to stop behaving like UKIP.
The debate started with an acknowledgement that President Juncker had assembled behind him the entire college of Commissioners for this important debate, including Lord Hill, who was given a vote of thanks by Schulz and a standing ovation from his fellow Commissioners. That will have killed off his future with the Tory party when he gets home! In the resolution that followed the debate, calls from the Left not to allocate a portfolio to the new British Commissioner were rejected. David Cameron has now said he will appoint a replacement before leaving office but names are still to circulate.
With these big set-piece debates, the people missing from the platform are often as significant as those present. And so the Council was represented by Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Dutch Minister of Defence and a former MEP. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, had both been invited but didn’t attend. It’s tempting to read this as a further indication that the Member States want to control this whole process and limit the influence of the more federally driven EU institutions.
President Juncker repeated the new Brussels mantra on the start of negotiations “no notification, no negotiation” and emphasised that he had imposed a “Presidential ban” on any of his team being involved in any preliminary talks with the UK. “There will be no secret negotiations in smoke filled rooms” – a serious pledge from a heavy smoker. He said it was still full steam ahead with the 10 point plan he had set and ended with the rallying cry “I’m not tired, I’m not sick. Until my last breath I’ll fight for a united Europe”.
The debate followed a rather predictable pattern. Several political group leaders lamented the fact that it was the young, the Erasmus generation, who would suffer most. There was also visible anger at the “lies” touted by the Leave camp, such as the claim that money sent to the EU could now be spent on the NHS. The arch-federalists, like Guy Verhofstadt, also made clear that their vision of more Europe was undiminished and national leaders did not need any great leap of imagination to sort out the problems – simply go back to the ideals of the founding fathers.
There was a hush when Nigel Farage took the floor and he couldn’t resist a first dig at all those who had ridiculed his plans to leave the EU – “you’re not laughing now, are you”. His speeches have taken on an increasingly anti- corporate tone, claiming that it was the “ordinary, decent people who had rejected the multinationals, the big banks and big politics”. He ended with a prediction that the UK would not be the last member state to leave and with Marine Le Pen next to speak it was an ominous reminder of how bad things really could get. She welcomed the result of the vote as a “cri d’amour” from a people for its country.
The biggest ovation of the night went to Scottish Nationalist MEP Alyn Smith, for his Braveheart moment. “Scotland did not let you down” he thundered” so do not let Scotland down”. Verhofstadt also got a big laugh for his claim that they could now get rid of the biggest waste of EU budget – Nigel Farage’s salary.
The resolution tabled by the EPP, S&D, ALDE and Greens – the 4 most pro-federalist groups – was adopted by 395 votes to 200. They slightly downgraded the urgency on invoking article 50 from “immediate” to “as soon as possible”, which at least shows some sense of realism. The resolution is keen to remind anyone who is listening that the EP must be fully involved in the process as its consent will be needed on the withdrawal agreement and the deal on future relationship.