Wednesday, September 30, 2020

British reps pack their bags as European Parliament approves Brexit

Jan 30. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Michael Birnbaum · BUSINESS, WORLD, EUROPE

BRUSSELS - Molly Scott Cato's rail ticket for her final trip back to London is printed and ready on her office desk. Her mementos from her past six years as a member of the European Parliament have been removed from the walls. One of the last things to go in a cardboard box will be her "Brexit: not my cup of tea" mug, which is still serving duty this week.

"It's a very weird thing, isn't it? Shutting the whole thing down. Switching off the light," she said.

She's bracing for the stroke of midnight as Friday turns to Saturday, when Britain leaves the European Union, and, a bit like Cinderella, she'll shed her status a lawmaker and turn back into a civilian.

Brexit has involved a rather drawn-out goodbye. Not only have three and a half years passed since Britain voted in favor of a departure, but this week's formal exit will be followed by an 11-month transition period. Ordinary citizens and businesses won't see a difference until the end of the year, at the earliest.

But one of the few immediate impacts of Brexit is that Britain's 73 representatives in the European Parliament will lose their jobs. No longer will they play a role in shaping Europe's future or setting regulations for its 500 million residents. 

The British lawmakers here in the EU capital were each issued 15 cardboard boxes to pack up their offices. The departing lawmakers include people like Scott Cato, who fervently believe in the EU project and describe what they're experiencing this week "very much like a grieving process."

"It's that horrible thing where you wake up in the morning and you forget it, and then you remember," said Scott Cato, a Green Party lawmaker. 

Also leaving, though, are the boisterous Brexiteers, who made up the majority of the U.K. delegation in recent years and have used it as a platform to mock their fellow lawmakers and the EU more broadly.

On Wednesday, they got a final chance to stick their fingers in the eyes of their pro-EU colleagues.

"You all thought it was terribly funny. You stopped laughing in 2016," said Nigel Farage, who pushed for the Brexit referendum that year.

Farage has been a vocally euroskeptic member of the European Parliament since 1999. Although he has failed repeatedly to win election to the British House of Commons, he has finally triumphed on his core issue, the need to extract Britain from Europe.

"I'm hoping this begins the end of the project. It's a bad project," he said Wednesday.

He then pulled out a British flag - a violation of parliamentary rules that no flags sit on lawmakers' desks - had his microphone cut off and stormed out of the Chamber, along with the rest of his Brexit Party lawmakers.

Elsewhere in Brussels, the British presence is actually expanding. The British Permanent Representation to the European Union - the EU-member equivalent of an embassy - is turning into a "mission" and growing its staff, the better to negotiate with the Europeans now that British diplomats will be excluded from EU meetings. There's already been plenty of snickering on Twitter that the diplomatic outpost will be retiring its "UKREP" designation and adopting "UKMissEU."

While British lawmakers have been busy with exit preparations, the rest of the EU has, for the most part, continued business as usual. On Wednesday, before Farage's dramatics, the European Parliament discussed a proposal to encourage India to protect all of its citizens, including the Muslim ones. Several British lawmakers, including Shaffaq Mohammed, who was born in the Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir, took part in the debate, urging the legislature to vote on the proposal right away, rather than waiting until March, when the British delegation would no longer be present. (The push for an immediate vote failed.)

Only after concluding that debate did European lawmakers vote on the treaty that solidifies Britain's transition out of the European Union. In the end, the withdrawal agreement was approved, 621 to 49, with 13 abstentions.

Once the result was announced, the lawmakers stood in the Chamber, linked hands and sang "Auld Lang Syne." Many pro-EU British lawmakers appeared to be weeping. Some waved scarves featuring both the EU and British flags. (Scarves with flags seemed to be within the bounds of parliamentary rules.)

"Fifty years of integration cannot disappear easily," said European Parliament President David Sassoli, before signing the document that conveyed the legislature's consent to the split. "It is very hard to say goodbye. It is too final. And that is why, like other colleagues, I say arrivederci."

As the hours of Britain's membership dwindled, U.K. lawmakers prepared to mark the occasion in their own ways. In one lawmakers' office, the assistants this week were applying for unemployment benefits and searching for other jobs. In another, preparations were underway for a rueful party Thursday evening at Place Luxembourg, the plaza outside the European Parliament that is lined with bars.

"People keep giving me their condolences," said Magid Magid, the British Green party lawmaker planning the party.

Magid, 30, was only elected for the first time in May. But he said he felt he had been able to draw attention to Islamophobia and other European failings during his seven months in the legislature. He is one of three Muslim lawmakers in the body, all of whom are British and will depart on Friday.

Few pro-EU British lawmakers in Brussels plan to mark the actual exit moment in public. Magid said he'd get together with his staff Friday evening and have a final meal with them on Saturday.

Seb Dance, one of the most prominent pro-EU Labour lawmakers in the European Parliament, said he planned to mourn in private. 

"I'm just going to end up crying, and someone will see me crying. There's no point in doing that. I'm not going to mark it," he said.

So he'll hand over the keys to his apartment Friday morning, come in to the Parliament for a final day of work, check into a hotel that evening and visit some final Belgian sites over the weekend before heading home to Britain.

His country's departure, he said, was merely a "sabbatical."

"We have an organized, very motivated and incredibly depressed but also angry polity, a pro-European base in the U.K. that is huge. Millions, millions of people. And that didn't exist before," he said.

Scott Cato was so hopeful that those pro-Europeans in Britain would reverse Brexit that she refused to sign a flexible lease on her Brussels apartment. It was only on the morning of Dec. 13, after pro-Brexit Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party won a resounding election victory, that she emailed her landlord to give notice. She now owes two extra months of rent. 

Scott Cato, a former academic, plans to spend Friday among friendly faces at a British university event, talking about Europe's future, late into the evening. 

She said she's still uncertain what she'll do next. 

Like Dance, she said she doesn't think Britain's departure is permanent. People will change their minds, she said, once they feel the economic pain Brexit will unleash.

Desire for renewed membership "does have to play its way out," she said. "I think 10 years. I mean, I'm 56, so I want to be here when it happens."




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