Brexit reflections from Syed Kamall

Brexit reflections from Syed Kamall

Here is the latest in our series reflecting on the Brexit process with regular BrexitCentral authors and others who have played an important role in our journey out of the European Union. Here are the answers to our questions from Syed Kamall, who was Conservative MEP for London between 2005 and 2019, latterly leading the pan-continental European Conservatives and Reformists group of MEPs.

BC: When did you first come to the view that the UK would be better off out of the EU? Did you ever think that the EU could be reformed from within to make membership tolerable for the UK? Tell us how your views developed over time on the issue.

I had become increasingly eurosceptic since the UK’s experience with the ERM, but felt that we could still reform the EU from the inside. I became a MEP in 2005 around the time that the French and Dutch people voted “No” in their referendums on the European Constitution. As we reflected on the implications of those “No” votes in the European Parliament, I was shocked by the number of MEPs who simply wanted to ignore the results and push on with further European integration; but perhaps the most shocking moment for me was when the then leader of the EPP (the group in which Conservative MEPs sat in those days) stood up and said: “Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of the European Project. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of political integration. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of economic integration.” As a newly-elected British MEP, this belief in the European Project – where the eventual goal was to build a United States of Europe or a Federal Republic of Europe – was news to me. When I protested to my non-British colleagues that this was not what the British people believed in, I was told to read the history of the EU.

That was when I realised that that there was a massive gap in perception between many in EU institutions who believe in the European Project and the people of Britain, many of whom had told me that they believed they voted to stay in a Common Market in 1975. As I read more about the history of the EU, I realised that the political dimension of the EU had been played down by politicians of all parties in the UK for the last 40 years, and was still being played down. I felt that unless this gap in perceptions was addressed, the UK would continue to have an ambiguous relationship with the EU. Therefore, I fully supported David Cameron when he called the referendum.

BC: What was your most memorable moment during the referendum campaign?

There are two moments that stand out. The first was being told by a senior government minister that my career would be over if I voted Leave. When I explained that I advise aspiring politicians to be true to themselves and that I aimed to do this too, he replied: “What do you mean true to yourself?”

The second was when senior EU politicians told me they were frustrated at being told by the Remain camp to keep away from the UK referendum campaign. I suggested to Guy Verhofstadt (the European Parliament Brexit coordinator) who had openly called for a United States of Europe, a European army and a European FBI to come to the UK to sell his vision. He declined and admitted that he didn’t think the British people would vote for it!

BC: Who was the most unlikely ally you campaigned with or shared a platform with during the referendum? Did you strike up any unexpected new friendships across traditional political divides?

I did not actually campaign. Instead, I published a pocket guide on the referendum, explaining David Cameron’s deal and arguments for Leave and Remain and then spent the referendum campaign speaking at public meetings and discussing the arguments on both sides. Once I had decided how to vote, I did not reveal my own position until the end of the meetings. After one public meeting, the local Lib Dems tweeted that I gave a fair account of both sides, but this was taken down soon afterwards! You can listen to a recording of me interviewing members of the audience after one of the public meetings here.

BC: Where were you on referendum night? How did it feel?

I had to be in Brussels on the day and night of the referendum since I was due to attend an 8am meeting of the leaders of the political groups the next day. I did some media, but most were confident that we would stay. Just before I grabbed a couple of hours’ sleep before my early morning TV interview, Remain were still ahead and I went to bed feeling that it was all over. By the time I woke up for my 5.30am interview, Leave had taken the lead. I expected Remain to retake the lead when the London results came in, but I soon came to the realisation that the London votes had already been counted. When I arrived outside the European Parliament for my interview on ITV News, the interviewer told me that his producers had told him that they were about to announce that Leave had won. I could not believe it and it felt as if an air of silence had descended, until one Welsh journalist who had been in Brussels for years started slagging off her fellow Welshmen for voting to Leave. This brought home to me how distant Brits in the Brussels bubble had become.

BC: Did you think then that it would take as long as it has for Brexit to actually happen?

No. I had determined to accept the result and had prepared speeches for both outcomes for the press conference on the following day. Many of my friends who voted Remain told me they would accept the result if Leave won. Therefore, I expected others to do so too, but was sadly wrong.

BC: Were there any moments in these last few years since the referendum when you thought the prize could yet be snatched from us?

Yes. Many times. Especially with the votes in Parliament and being told that Blair and other past and current politicians visited Brussels to convince them that Brexit could be stopped. I also felt that there were one or two people around Theresa May who were determined to get us a bad deal or keep us in the EU.

BC: Do you think the British electoral landscape will return to type once Brexit has been delivered? Or will Brexit have caused a lasting change to the political map of Britain?

I thinks it’s too early to say. I think the next general election will tell us, especially if voters in former Labour heartlands return to Labour or stay at home.

BC: What changes do you want/hope to see made now that the UK has taken back control? Can you summarise your vision for Brexit Britain?

I want the UK once again to be seen as a beacon for liberty, tolerance and free trade. I also hope we have a fairer immigration policy based on merit rather then giving priority to mostly white Europeans over mostly non-white non-Europeans.

BC: Do you have any special plans for 1st February, our first day outside the EU?

No. Maybe catching up on sleep after the party on 31st January?

BC: Do you have a favourite photo of yourself from the Brexit process? If so, please share it and give us the context for it.

As above, speaking to the Brussels media on Friday 24th June 2016 after the result was announced.