Yesterday, MEPs spent three hours debating Brexit and then voted on a resolution which set out the Parliament’s overall principles for the negotiations between the EU and the UK.
For the most part, the tone was one of sadness, regret, and also realism. There was disappointment that for the first time ever a country has chosen to leave the EU, and a focus on preserving the unity of remaining 27 countries in the EU. But there was also, encouragingly, a real understanding from MEPs across the rest of Europe that what matters most in these negotiations is people. It is the citizens of the UK, and the citizens of the rest of Europe, who will be affected by the final deal that is agreed.
That means people from elsewhere in Europe who have chosen to start businesses, start families and make a life for themselves in the UK, and who now face excruciating uncertainty about their future. It means those from Britain who have chosen to do the same in reverse, and are now equally worried. It means those people living on either side of the Irish border and wondering whether they are about to experience a return to the dark days of the past.
And it means the millions of people who live in my constituency, in the South East, whose lives are affected by our EU membership in a thousand different ways on a daily basis - and who will be impacted in one way or another by the final deal. A good deal at the end of all of this will mean that their jobs can remain secure, their rights within those jobs safe and protected, the air they breathe still clean and the products they buy still of a high quality and reasonably priced. A bad deal means all of those things are at risk. It was a relief to hear many other MEPs speaking about the need to put British, and European, citizens’ rights first.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of other South East MEPs. Nigel Farage used his time in the debate to offend as many Europeans as possible, referring to them as the “mafia” and suggesting that the UK was somehow being held “hostage” by the EU. Janice Atkinson, who is too extreme even for UKIP and has decided to throw her lot in with Marine Le Pen’s fascist party, made a speech even more offensive and less coherent.
This behaviour is phenomenally irresponsible given the stakes of the negotiations ahead.
We are about to sit down with 27 other sovereign nations and try to negotiate a deal that serves the interests of the British people. It will be incredibly complex. It will be hard work. And it will have to involve compromises on all sides, and a lot of goodwill. How much goodwill did Farage and Atkinson throw away yesterday, in five minutes of crass opportunism? How much harder did they just make it for us to reach a deal that delivers for the people of the South East?
We need to be building bridges right now, if we are to stand any chance of getting a good deal. Nigel Farage and Janice Atkinson seem to want to burn them. They should be thinking of their constituents instead.