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Brexit: MEPs ratify UK withdrawal agreement

 

Politicians join in rendition of Auld Lang Syne after vote confirming UK departure from EU on Friday

Britains departure from the EU on 31 January was set in stone in a historic moment for the nation as MEPs in Brussels ratified the withdrawal agreement before breaking out in a rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

As the president of the European parliament, David Sassoli, announced the result of the vote, with 621 in favour to 49 against with 13 abstentions, MEPs stood almost as one to sing the Scottish song.

The vote ensures that the UKs 47 years of membership of the EU will now end at midnight central European time on Friday, after years of troubled talks and uncertainty.

Sassoli concluded the session by quoting the murdered British MP Jo Cox, who was killed during the 2016 referendum campaign: We have a lot more in common than divides us.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit party, had left the chamber after being reprimanded for waving a union jack and speaking in terms of his hate for the EU, in a notably truculent intervention.

The debate was emotional at times, and notable for an outpouring of praise for British politicians and civil servants working in the EUs institutions for driving enlargement and breaking down barriers to trade.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European commission president, described Arthur Cockfield, a British commissioner in the 1980s, as the father of our single market. She celebrated the former Labour chancellor Roy Jenkins for his role in paving the way for the founding of the single currency.

British MEPs including Molly Scott Cato broke down in tears as they addressed the parliament for the final time.

But with negotiations between the EU and the UK over the future relationship due to start on 3 March, Von der Leyen also made an appeal for the British prime minister to listen to the calls of the UKs car industry and aerospace to maintain EU standards outside the bloc.

The Guardian understands that earlier in the day, the EUs chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, had been urged by France during an internal meeting of EU27 diplomats to demand that the UK sign up to dynamic alignment across the board on state aid, environmental, social and labour standards.

The French argued that the UK could not be given a competitive advantage from which they would reap dividends in the future.

Barnier gave a non-committal answer, sources said, but he emphasised that protecting the single market was a more important aim than achieving tariff-free access to the British market for EU goods.

Speaking to MEPs, Von der Leyen said the EU was offering an unprecedented zero tariffs, zero quota deal but suggested that Britain needed to align on basic standards for that to be achievable.

The commission president told MEPs: We will certainly not expose our companies to unfair competition. And it is very clear the trade-off is simple.

The more the United Kingdom does commit to upholding our standards for social protections and workers rights, upholding our guarantees on the environment and fair competition

Just days ago some of the largest business associations in Britain particularly in the car and aerospace industry asked their government to maintain EU standards and rules and I think this is in our mutual interest.

I believe the United Kingdom and the European Union have a mutual interest in the closest possible partnership, Von der Leyen continued. No new partnership will bring back the benefits of being part of the same union. But we have the duty to see the best for the British and European people in a post-Brexit world.

The commission president concluded by quoting George Elliot: Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love. We will always love you and we will never be far, Von der Leyen said.

Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium who led for the parliament during much of the last four years since the referendum result, asked MEPs to reflect on what had gone wrong.

It is sad to see a country leaving that twice liberated us, [that has] twice given its blood to liberate Europe, he said. I think in this debate we cannot escape a key question: how could this happen?

But Verhofstadts explanation that the EU had not become federal enough and that the exemptions and rebate offered to the UK had created an unattractively sclerotic bloc failed to convince Farage, however.

In his final statement to the parliament, where he has been an MEP for 21 years, Farage said: Once we have left we will not be coming back and the rest is detail When I walked in here, you all thought it was terribly funny. You stopped laughing in 2017.

Farages party colleagues waved union flags and gave three cheers as he concluded his comments.

Put your flags away, if you are leaving, responded Mairead McGuinness, an Irish MEP who was chairing the debate as vice-president of the parliament, as Brexit party MEPs left their seats.

Barnier spoke in the debate to single out the former Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff and outgoing Labour MEP Richard Corbett for praise in developing the EU.

He referenced the words of former cabinet minister Chris Patten, who had once asked if the defence of the national interest could solely be a national concern. Is it not necessary to be European over and above being a patriot? Barnier asked.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jan/29/brexit-meps-to-vote-on-withdrawal-agreement-ahead-of-uk-departure

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