It is done. I have given my final speech in the European Parliament, handed in my security pass, and left Brussels for the last time as an MEP. After 20 years of trying to get rid of my job, I have succeeded, and it feels fantastic. At 11 o’clock tonight, our nation will pass the point of no return, enacting the wish of the majority which was first expressed back in June 2016. The EU, however, is only just getting to grips with the situation.
As I and my fellow (now ex) MEPs sat in the assembly on Wednesday, I sensed the other politicians were more scared of us and our departure than we were of them and the finality of it all. Is it any surprise? The UK economy is the equivalent in size of the EU’s 19 smallest economies. Our exit from the single market could hole the entire rotten project below the waterline, and while the Titanic sinks, our nation will be on a lifeboat rowing to a bright new future. Their fear was reflected in their behaviour.
During a lengthy debate on Wednesday, many said they regretted Brexit and warned that the EU must adapt or more countries will quit the bloc. On cue, Guy Verhofstadt, the Brexit Co-ordinator of the European Parliament, piped up with a solution: more European integration and no opt-outs for any countries. Deluded to the last.
When she spoke, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, tried to sound tough. Any trade deal with the UK could only happen if there is a regulatory level playing field, she threatened. She was booed loudly by Brexit Party MEPs. Gosh, how they will miss us.
Next came a moment which captured the small-mindedness of the EU. For more than 10 years my colleagues and I have placed small Union Jack flags on our desks in the chamber. But an usher told me recently that no national symbols are allowed. In my valedictory speech, I said that through our example of leaving, we would lead the way for other countries to follow. I then picked up a small Union flag and, with the redoubtable Ann Widdecombe and others, stood and waved goodbye.
At this, a humourless and self-important Irish MEP called Mairead McGuinness (First Vice-President of the European Parliament, don’t you know) cut off my microphone. In 20 years I have seldom been cut off, but the speed with which this jobsworth acted was telling. There was some cheering and clapping from our crew. McGuinness said we should take our flags and go, which we did. We headed straight to the bar.
On the pro-EU British side, the mood was very different. After the vote backing the terms of the UK’s departure, the Liberal Democrats led singing of Auld Lang Syne. It seemed fitting that they chose the very song played as the Titanic sank. Some cried, which did not surprise me. What other job would most of these people get where they are treated as VIPs, given chauffeur-driven cars and huge expenses? Remember: there are 10,000 “officials” in Brussels who are paid more than the British prime minister. Is this not reason enough to be glad about Brexit?
Getting to this stage has been tough. To have reached it is cause for celebration, and we will do so tonight at 11pm. Yet many Tory Leavers now seem embarrassed by Brexit and almost apologetic about tonight’s gathering in Parliament Square – despite thousands wanting to mark this historic occasion. I cannot understand why this should be but I would urge them to come and join in as we move to the next chapter in our nation’s history.
On Monday, the European Commission publishes its negotiating mandate. It will try to keep the UK trapped in the EU rulebook. Boris Johnson must see what a weakened position the EU is in. Britain is too big to bully. From now on, we must call the shots. He must also remember the promises he made in the general election: an end to transition in 2020 and no regulatory alignment.
Because of Johnson’s large parliamentary majority, Brexiteers need an insurance policy. So the Brexit Party, in conjunction with a new think tank, will continue its mission: to praise when necessary and raise the alarm if needed. I will not walk away. I am ready to catch the ball if the Tories drop it again.