Britain has spent years mocking the European parliament - but now it's in control

Guest writer

By Edward McMillan-Scott

The focus of the Brexit debate is now shifting to the EU institutions. Last week draft guidelines for the negotiations were published by Donald Tusk. This Wednesday there’ll be a debate and resolution of the European Parliament. This institution, which has been treated very roughly by Britain for many years, is now key to our fate.

It was a shame that the process began with a spat about Britain’s imperial past: the future of Gibraltar. Th is was both regrettable and avoidable by Theresa May. Theintervention at the weekend of Michael Howard, a gloomy former leader of the Conservative party who linked it to the Falklands, points to the sway the hard right continues to have in their party. I should know, because I was London adviser to the Falkland Islanders for seven years and have since spent my political life opposing the Tory right.

Edward McMillan-Scott and chief EU Brexit negotiator, Commissioner Michel Barnier

Whereas the Falklands population was about 1,800 folk in 1982 - mainly from my former Yorkshire & Humber Euro-constituency - the British dependency of Gibraltar, which dates from about the same time, is home to some 30,000 people. Half of them are either British or Spanish ethnically and the rest a mix of arrivals from Italy, Morocco and Portugal. The Falklands’ economy depends on wool, but Gibraltar is now the eighth largest offshore financial centre in the world, and a microcosm of the hard Brexit Britain embraced by the Tory right, as Ed Miliband warned the Marr programme on Sunday.

Whether it is the hard right European Research Group (ERG) which is stirring the Gibraltar pot or its friends in Downing Street remains to be seen. But it was Howard who founded the ERG in 1993 as a reaction to the ejection of his heroine Margaret Thatcher from the Conservative leadership. And it is the ERG which has kept up the pressure on Brexit.

The ERG are Tony Blair’s “ideologues” and John Major’s “bastards”. They are today a group of 60-odd MPs coordinated through WhatsApp with the sinister title “ERG DExEU/DIT Suppt Group”. Most are adamant for an early and clean break from any European engagements, epitomised by their hatred of the EU. As Daniel Hannan – ERG’s first researcher - observes in his latest book, the group was set up with a deliberately innocuous name, but its influence on the Conservative party since 1993 has been profound. Most of its members revealed themselves in an open letter to Donald Tusk on the rights of EU citizens in the UK last November and some use their parliamentary allowances to pay for a staffer. However, they do have opponents in the parliamentary party. Anti-Brexit Tories like Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry, Alistair Burt and Neil Carmichael are showing vivid post Article 50 opposition to the government line. Soubry even declaring her openness to the formation of a new centre party.

These issues – indeed the whole spectrum of Brexit - will be debated fully at theConvention on Brexit on 12 and 13 May in Central Hall, Westminster.

Now the British Brexiters will meet their political opponents in the committee rooms of the European Parliament, as well as over 30 national and regional assemblies across the continent and its islands over the next two years.

Continental politicians have been reticent about entering into open hostilities until the triggering of Article 50, but now the gloves are coming off. The European parliament’s draft resolution explicitly says that Article 50 is revocable but warns against its use “to improve the terms of the UK’s membership”. It insists that a country withdrawing from the Union cannot enjoy similar benefits to members of it.

That being said, the consensus among MEPs is for positive responses to the Brexit crisis. They are focussed on the rights of the EU’s citizens abroad, whether those in the UK or British ex-pats, have confirmed their commitment to the “continuity and stability” of the Good Friday agreement, and are offering UK citizens fearful of losing the rights they currently enjoy through EU citizenship some hope of ‘mitigation’. But there is steel behind the European parliament’s smile. This is an institution which is used to being disparaged by Britain. It no longer has to put up with it.

Whereas the Falklands population was about 1,800 folk in 1982 - mainly from my former Yorkshire & Humber Euro-constituency - the British dependency of Gibraltar, which dates from about the same time, is home to some 30,000 people. Half of them are either British or Spanish ethnically and the rest a mix of arrivals from Italy, Morocco and Portugal. The Falklands’ economy depends on wool, but Gibraltar is now the eighth largest offshore financial centre in the world, and a microcosm of the hard Brexit Britain embraced by the Tory right, as Ed Miliband warned the Marr programme on Sunday.

Whether it is the hard right European Research Group (ERG) which is stirring the Gibraltar pot or its friends in Downing Street remains to be seen. But it was Howard who founded the ERG in 1993 as a reaction to the ejection of his heroine Margaret Thatcher from the Conservative leadership. And it is the ERG which has kept up the pressure on Brexit.

The ERG are Tony Blair’s “ideologues” and John Major’s “bastards”. They are today a group of 60-odd MPs coordinated through WhatsApp with the sinister title “ERG DExEU/DIT Suppt Group”. Most are adamant for an early and clean break from any European engagements, epitomised by their hatred of the EU. As Daniel Hannan – ERG’s first researcher - observes in his latest book, the group was set up with a deliberately innocuous name, but its influence on the Conservative party since 1993 has been profound. Most of its members revealed themselves in an open letter to Donald Tusk on the rights of EU citizens in the UK last November and some use their parliamentary allowances to pay for a staffer. However, they do have opponents in the parliamentary party. Anti-Brexit Tories like Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry, Alistair Burt and Neil Carmichael are showing vivid post Article 50 opposition to the government line. Soubry even declaring her openness to the formation of a new centre party.

These issues – indeed the whole spectrum of Brexit - will be debated fully at theConvention on Brexit on 12 and 13 May in Central Hall, Westminster.

Now the British Brexiters will meet their political opponents in the committee rooms of the European Parliament, as well as over 30 national and regional assemblies across the continent and its islands over the next two years.

Continental politicians have been reticent about entering into open hostilities until the triggering of Article 50, but now the gloves are coming off. The European parliament’s draft resolution explicitly says that Article 50 is revocable but warns against its use “to improve the terms of the UK’s membership”. It insists that a country withdrawing from the Union cannot enjoy similar benefits to members of it.

That being said, the consensus among MEPs is for positive responses to the Brexit crisis. They are focussed on the rights of the EU’s citizens abroad, whether those in the UK or British ex-pats, have confirmed their commitment to the “continuity and stability” of the Good Friday agreement, and are offering UK citizens fearful of losing the rights they currently enjoy through EU citizenship some hope of 'mitigation’. But there is steel behind the European parliament’s smile. This is an institution which is used to being disparaged by Britain. It no longer has to put up with it.

David Cameron’s first political utterance since the referendum was to say last week that he did not like the European parliament. Let me assure him that the feeling has been mutual ever since he capitulated to pressure from the right in his parliamentary party. He did this first by splitting from the centrist EPP group and second by announcing a badly-constructed referendum which divided the country, threatens to dissolve and impoverish it and put at risk not only Britain’s security but that of our continent.

The centrality of the EPP, which has half the EU’s premiers and commissioners, was demonstrated last week when it held a congress in Malta, where Donald Tusk (one of its own) announced that Britain’s hope of parallel, rather than sequenced negotiations “will not happen”.  

Meanwhile, Nigel Farage and Hannan, the progenitors of Brexit and still full-time campaigners to ensure that it does happen, continue to sit as MEPs, prompting Guy Verhofstadt – the parliament’s Brexit coordinator - to describe Ukip’s former leader as “the greatest waste of money in the EU”.

The European parliament is not going to be an easy sparring partner. It recognises May’s strategy of picking off member states and is resolutely opposing any piecemeal exemptions for the City or other sectors. It decries May’s suggested trade-off between internal and external security “including defence cooperation” and any future economic cooperation.

A more integrated EU is the ambition of many MEPs. Some, like the parliament’s combative and highly engaged Verhofstadt is not the greatest fan of the UK. Like so many, he has been let down by British perfidy as he sees it, especially Tony Blair’s failure to support him for president of the Commission in 2004. Although one of the key players – Martin Schulz, a former president of the parliament – has returned to Germany to head up the SPD’s campaign for chancellor, his influence is still felt and may be crucial after the German elections in September. Having served as one of his vice-presidents for over two years I can attest that he is no Anglophile either. Nor is Elmar Brok, the influential German EPP MEP who is one of a small team who work alongside Verhofstadt.

These, and many others, see Britain’s departure as an opportunity to “start an in-depth inter-institutional reflection on the EU’s future”, the last objective listed in a 32-paragraph text. It is not intended to be any easy read for Theresa May. But then it was always going to be the case that this institution fought back against British intransigence. After all, no matter how much the Brexiters try to pretend they are in control of this situation, it’s the European Parliament has the final say on the EU’s Brexit offering.

Edward McMillan-Scott was a UK MEP 1984-2014 and European parliament vice-president 2004-2014. A former leader of the Conservative MEPs, he opposed David Cameron’s split from the mainstream EPP Group in 2009 and sat as a LibDem until 2014. He is a patron of the non-party European Movement and is a committee member of the Convention on Brexit

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