European politicians joined hands and tearfully sang Auld Lang Syne – a Scottish song traditionally used to mark farewells – following their final vote to accept the United Kingdom‘s departure from the European Union.
After 621 to 49 MEPs voted to approve the Withdrawal Agreement on Wednesday, President of the EU Parliament David Sassoli held a farewell ceremony the UK’s departing politicians, allowing them to make one last farewell speech in a reception space in the parliamentary building.
Although mostly good-natured, there were shouts of “shame on you” and “sore loser” from the crowd as different MEPs took to the podium.
Packing boxes had been placed outside the offices of British MEPs as the legislature took the final steps in a withdrawal process that has taken more than three and half years since the Brexit referendum saw a narrow 52-48 margin of victory for “Brexiters”.
British MEP Nigel Farage, a hard right figure who led an unofficial campaign to leave the bloc, boasted of the benefits of populism before eventually being cut off in a pugnacious, flag-waving speech.
He had earlier reportedly been forced to pack up his office – only to unpack it again so he could pose with his boxes for photographers.
Farage 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.
“No more financial contributions, no more European Court of Justice, no more common fisheries policy, no more being talked down to, no more being bullied.”
In response to MEPs who expressed a hope that the UK would one day return to the EU fold, he said: “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.”
Sit down, put your flags away - you're leaving, take them with you if you're leaving now. Goodbye.
Deputy Speaker Mairead McGuinness unceremoniously cut off his microphone, telling him: “Sit down, put your flags away – you’re leaving, take them with you if you’re leaving now. Goodbye.”
The European Parliament defended the bloc’s motivations, while honouring the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
“Europe rose with the intention never again to give quarter to absolute evil,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“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.
“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.”
The EU Parliament building was packed with politicians, press and spectators before the final vote.
Crowds of international news crews lined the walkways between the parliamentary buildings trying to flag down passing MEPs and diplomats for interviews.
Belgium MEP Guy Verhofstadt added: “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.”
A series of UK MEPs rose to make their farewell speeches, including Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson, furious at Northern Ireland being dragged out of the Union “against our will”.
Many said they expected the UK to eventually return to the EU fold, vowing to build a good relationship between the UK and the EU.
The Green Party’s Molly Scott Cato provoked the strongest reaction, receiving a standing ovation as she made a tearful farewell.
“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.”
— Alyn Smith MP 🏴🇪🇺🏳️🌈 (@AlynSmith) January 29, 2020
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, spoke to the chamber in French, saying: “The UK had a referendum and the majority, democratically, chose to leave the European Union.
“It’s something we have always been sorry about, something we continue to be sorry about but it is something we have to respect.”
He listed all the work that lays ahead before the eventual relationship between the UK and the EU is established, saying it must be conducted with “patience and respect”.
Barnier, famous for his reluctance to speak in any other language but his own, finished in English with the words: “In this new beginning, I would really and sincerely like to wish the UK well.”
The UK will officially leave the EU at 23:00 GMT on Friday.