The European parliament has approved Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, paving the way for Britain to leave the bloc at the end of the week. MEPs overwhelmingly backed the treaty by 621 votes to 49, with 13 abstentions – meaning it has cleared its last real hurdle ahead of the exit date on Friday.
Following the vote, the chamber immediately broke into a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” – a farewell tribute planned by anti-Brexit MEPs.
Member states will formally approve the agreement in writing on Thursday, though they have in effect already approved it at a leaders’ summit last year.
Unusually for the usually rigid European parliament, speeches went half an hour over time so more representatives could bid farewell. Presiding speaker Mairead McGuinness jokingly asked MEPs to defend her if she lost her job for the transgression.
Most British MEPs gave speeches – often emotional – regretting the decision, while MEPs from the other member states wished the UK good luck and thanked it for its contribution.
The Brexit Party’s contingent was in celebratory mood, and was at one point told off by the speaker for waving miniature Union Jacks after Nigel Farage gave a triumphant speech.
Mr Farage said Brexit showed that “the British are too big to bully”, adding that he was an “outright opponent of the European project” and that he hoped Britain’s departure would convince other countries to leave.
“We don’t hate Europe, we just hate the European Union,” he said.
As the British flag-waving began, the speaker Ms McGuinness intervened, telling the MEPs: “Please sit down and take your seats, put your flags away, and take them with you.”
Labour MEPs leader Corbett predicted that that “public opinion will continue to move against Brexit” and said that the media’s “catchphrase” over the next few years would be “Brexit isn’t working – that’s what people will say”. He said his party would vote against the deal because it had not been put to a public vote and was “bad for Britain”.
Liberal Democrat MEP Bill Newton Dunn, whose party also voted against the agreement, attacked Westminster politics, telling his colleagues: “The buildings are built for an empire, and they still think they are running an empire. They have never told the British people reality. Even our children in schools are not taught about Europe in the curriculum!”
Green MEP Molly Scott Cato was close to tears as she delivered an emotional speech, joking “here come the tears!” as she struggled to hold them back.
“I hold in my heart that one day I will be back in this chamber, celebrating our return to the heart of Europe,” she concluded – earning a standing ovation from the public gallery and her colleagues on the floor.
Sinn Fein MEP for Northern Ireland Martina Anderson made a fiery contribution, telling the UK representatives that “partition is now your problem too”. She said that “when shady, low-standard products with minimum protection” cross the Northern Irish border “you will not be long in joining the sensible people in supporting Irish unity”.
She continued: “There is no doubt that Irish MEPs from the North will be back in the European parliament. Mark my words.”
One of the most forthright contributions from non-British MEPs came from Dutch centre-right representative Esther de Lange. She told the parliament: “Brexit or Remain – Boris didn’t really care, did he? He saw the ticket to Downing Street and made up his mind at the last minute. This is what happens when part of the media get away with misinformation and blatant lies.”
Spanish conservative Esteban Gonzalez Pons invoked Britain’s aid for the continent in the Second World War in an emotional contribution, stating: “It’s been the greatest honour to share the last 46 years with you, but the day will come when we are united again. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but as we learned from your parents: surrender is never an option.”
The only continental MEPs to celebrate the decision were from far-right parties. Finns Party representative Laura Huhtasaari said: “Britain will triumph outside of the EU! A shining movement that cannot be stopped. Farewell to the Brexit Party! I love you guys!” Jorg Meuthen, a member of the German AfD, added: “From now on you will have more freedom than we Remainers have. The Brexit will make Britain great again! Good luck guys!”
Guy Verhofstadt, the parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said the UK had “twice given its blood to liberate Europe” and that it marked a “sad” moment.
He predicted, however, that the UK would eventually rejoin, with many British people deeply unhappy at the prospect of leaving.
“In the last couple of days I have received hundreds of mails from British citizens saying they desperately want to stay or return,” he said. “So this vote is not an adieu, this vote, in my opinion, is only an au revoir.”
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, gave a preview of the trade negotiations starting next month, telling MEPs: “We are going to continue in the year that comes with the same spirit, the same objectivity, without any aggression by firmly, however, defending the interests of the union and its member states.
“Going beyond Brexit the UK will remain there. It will remain a close partner when it comes to the economy. It will be an ally as it always has been and it will be a friend.” Switching from French to English he concluded: “In this new beginning I would really and sincerely like to wish the UK well.”