“It feels like a death.”
“Is that it?”
"What a mess"
“How can they STILL not know what they want?”
Crammed into my own office with a crowd of fellow MEPs on Wednesday, watching the UK Prime Minister trigger Article 50, I realised the damage Brexit has done to any credibility the UK Government had. Appropriately for a process so reliant on a trigger, many of my colleagues see the Brexit mess as akin to blowing your brains out in order to lose weight.
First published in the Sunday Herald, 2 April 2017
Of course, there’s tremendous sadness around the whole thing, not least for me personally. I’ve had the privilege of representing Scotland in Brussels since 2004. I’ve lived a life that may now be denied completely to future generations – I studied in Germany, France and Poland, worked in Spain and Belgium, speak other languages and have real friends throughout Europe, many going back more than 20 years. A whole fresh crop of Scottish youth might not have the chance to say the same.
In leaving the EU we are losing something precious. Something many folk had come to take for granted.
Actually, not losing. Something precious is being taken away from us, by people we didn’t vote for and in the name of a project we don’t support, while their shills lecture us about why we should sit meekly and let them do it. Now is not the time to stand up for your rights, apparently, despite the fact that Scotland voted to Remain.
Being part of the EU gives us all rights we have come to take for granted. The right to travel, live, work, study, and retire anywhere across an area stretching from the Algarve to the Arctic circle. EU programmes mean we can study abroad – without Erasmus there is no way someone like me, as well as hundreds of others, would have studied abroad.
Being able to jump on a Ryanair or Easyjet for a holiday has changed how we all see the world, travel that is accessible to everyone is entirely because of the EU single market. People living in each other’s countries, coming to make Scotland their home, has changed our society, enriching it in every possible way.
All that, gone. And for what?
I didn't sleep much Tuesday, dreaded getting out of bed on Wednesday, and had no idea if I’d be able to keep a brave face on for the team, colleagues and opponents. One of the challenges of the last nine months is to not feel like Banquo’s Ghost at every meeting you go to, but colleagues rallied round us. MEPs piled into the office and we watched the Prime Minister’s speech… such as it was. As one said, incredulously, “Was that it?” That was my own feeling too.
Friends and colleagues started texting and tweeting within minutes.
“After nine months of planning, all they can say is ‘let’s be friends’?!” was one of the more polite messages. Friends of mine – experienced, hard-bitten old hands who dealt with the fall of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the reunification of Germany, the Irish peace process or the independence of Kosovo and South Sudan – were reduced to texting pictures of Munch’s The Scream or trying to cheer me up with ‘Bye Bye Britain, Hello Scottish Republic!’ because there wasn’t much else to say.
The dominant reaction was one of genuine sorrow, shorn of soundbites or politically expedient attitudes. Sorrow, but not surprise. The UK, in the words of one friend, has never really acted like a full member of the EU. Europe saw the front pages, the shrill headlines, the billboards of the EU referendum campaign.
"Perhaps this is the UK government finally acting upon its real convictions?" my friend shrugged.
Even the media frenzy, usually self-sustaining, was somehow hollow. Until Theresa May’s speech it was, after all, just a man delivering a letter. Objectively difficult to squeeze four hours of rolling news out of but the networks certainly gave it a go, sending the big news teams to cover the process in portentous tones.
Never have the workings of the EU been better explained. Perhaps this kind of engagement with the EU would have been useful pre-referendum, instead of leaving the EU to be the shadowy, banana-straightening creature of myth created by, among others, the UK’s current Foreign Secretary.
But there was cheer amid the gloom. UKIP were delighted, with their single Scottish MEP pictured beside a banner celebrating “British toast for British toasters.” Marine le Pen and the Hungarian fascists were cheery too.
Nonetheless, so it was that the new UK Permanent Representative, barely in post for a couple of months after the resignation in frustration of his predecessor, took his official car the 300 or so metres, (328 yards for the Brexiteers) to the Council building. A few hours later we received pictures of him handing the letter over.
It had actually happened. The world had changed.
We then received copies of the letter, and the Parliament published the draft response, the text of which has been in preparation for months. The political groups within the Parliament met to discuss the text.
The atmosphere in our group, composed of our Green friends from across the EU, was sombre. Many were unsure how best to respond beyond a hug or a shoulder clap.
The text will be debated and voted upon on Wednesday in Strasbourg, and will be the first official response to the Article 50 letter. It is a decent bit of work, and crucially, in a major win, makes explicit reference in Recital N to Scotland and Northern Ireland, recognising that we voted to Remain. The door is open to further moves on our part. We’ll not be silent.
The Council has since published the guidelines on how the negotiations will go. This is a far more important document than the Article 50 letter.
Be in no doubt, what Theresa May wants is a very small part of the picture now. The 27 EU states are well marshalled and the EU team is well drilled under Michel Barnier, a tough negotiator if ever there was one.
The tone has already changed. The power has shifted. The UK is now a soon-to-be third country.
Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP Group (the largest and centre-right) in Parliament set it out in a single tweet: “Europe has done all it can to keep the Brits, now the remaining 440 million are our only concern”.
Bear in mind that there is a German election on. Tough on Brits, tough on the causes of Brits, may well be a vote winner.
People are also asking a lot about my own future. Honestly, I’ve not thought much on it. Fact is, I’ve a job to do, people are relying on me, and I think there are things to win.
The reality is dawning that this UK Government holds no cards, but Scotland has plenty. Our position has never been better in Brussels and the member state capitals.
Where in 2014 there was an unwillingness to get into, as they would see it, the internal business of a fellow member state, the UK has just thrown away that solidarity.
Scotland are emphatically the good guys – we’re the multilateralists, the ones showing, and expecting, solidarity. I’ve spent the last nine months wondering how I’d feel when Article 50 actually happened.
The answer is, "Determined". This ain’t over.