Brussels braced for Brexit as MEPs debate UK withdrawal

Politicians, press and intrigued spectators gathered to witness the historic vote set to seal the UK’s exit from the European Union.

MEPs attend a session at the European Parliament in Brussels
MEPs attend a session at the European Parliament in Brussels

The EU Parliament was packed out with politicians, press and spectators ahead of the final vote on the Withdrawal Agreement – the last hurdle before the UK’s departure from the EU on Friday.

Crowds of international news crews lined the walkways between the parliamentary buildings trying to flag down passing MEPs and diplomats for interviews.

A packing case had been placed outside each UK MEP’s office to make way for new arrivals from the remaining EU 27 next week.

MEPs at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium (Yui Mok/PA)

An exhausted-looking Nigel Farage could also be seen being chased by reporters for a soundbite.

The Brexit Party leader had reportedly been persuaded to pack up his office and unpack again several times so he could pose up with his boxes for photographers.

One departing MEP remarked that she had not been approached for a single interview from the British press since her arrival in Brussels in May, only to give 15 in a day.

Before the final debate on Brexit – seen by many as a victory for populism – the Parliament honoured the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.

Italian holocaust survivor Liliana Segre addressed the parliament, followed by a speech by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

The commission president said: “Europe rose with the intention never again to give quarter to absolute evil.

“It didn’t start in Auschwitz. It started much earlier in people’s mind. It started with the weakening of the ability to be angry at the denigration that other people fell victim to.

“It started with brutality and hate speech against the Jewish community and then acts followed these words that became the unspeakable crystallisation of these words.”

She added: “Europe rose with the firm will never again to give any quarter to absolute evil. Europe knows like no other continent, do not let it take root. Never, ever again.”

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen during a session at the European Parliament in Brussels (Yui Mok/PA)

It was standing room only in the press gallery as camera crews lined up for the speeches ahead of the vote.

Belgium MEP Guy Verhofstadt – the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator – said: “Voting today is voting for an orderly against a wild Brexit.

“I will be honest, if you could stop Brexit by voting ‘no’ today then I would be the first to recommend it.

“It’s a sad issue. Sad to see a nation leaving, a great nation that has given us all so much economically, culturally, politically, even its own blood in two world wars.

“It’s sad to see a country leaving that twice liberated us, twice gave its own blood.”

He described Brexit as “a failure of the union”.

“Yes, it is also our failure. We have to recognise that in our debate. There is a lesson to be learned,” he said.

The final vote on the Withdrawal Agreement is due to take place at 5pm UK time.

Ms von der Leyen said: “We will miss you but we will always keep up our friendship with you and you can count on us as we know we can count on you.”

But there were cheers in the chamber when she emphasised that the condition of a “unique” free trade agreement would be that British and European businesses “continue to compete on a level playing field”.

But Mr Farage contradicted her in his speech, saying: “(Boris Johnson) has made it clear, he has promised us, there will be no level playing field.

“Once we have left, we are never coming back and the rest, frankly, is detail.”

He added: “What we have proved is that the British are too big to bully, thank goodness.

“We don’t need a European Commission, we don’t need a European Court, we don’t need EU institutions and all of this power and I can promise you that in Ukip and indeed in the Brexit Party, we love Europe, we just hate the European Union. It’s as simple as that.

“I hope this is the beginning of the end of this project, it’s a bad project. It’s undemocratic, in fact it’s anti-democratic. It gives people power without accountability.”

He described the current global political climate as globalism against populism, adding: “You may loathe populism, but I tell you a funny thing, it is becoming very popular.”

Mr Farage, who had decorated his seat with his own flags, ended up being cut off by the speaker as he listed the “benefits” of populism.

“No more financial contributions, no more European Court of Justice, no more Common Fisheries Policy, no more being talked down to, no more being bullies. No more Guy Verhofstadt,” he said.

Deputy speaker Mairead McGuinness told him: “Sit down, put your flags away or take them with you if you’re leaving now.”

Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato received a standing ovation for her tearful farewell speech.

“Now is not the time to campaign to rejoin but we must keep the dream alive, especially for young people who are overwhelmingly pro-EU,” she said.

“I hold in my heart that one day I will be in this chamber, celebrating our return to the heart of Europe.”

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