What they said about the Government’s Brexit policy in Brussels this week

What they said about the Government’s Brexit policy in Brussels this week

“Rupert! What is your government doing?”

The shout echoed along the corridors of the European Parliament. I had barely stepped inside the building when arriving for work on Monday. Hurrying toward me was Peter van Dalen, a Netherlands MEP who is as close to the caricature of a well-fed Dutch burgher as you could hope to meet.

Peter has never made any secret of the fact that he wants the UK to stay in the EU. “This means that you are having a soft Brexit?” he asked hopefully. I confirmed that it did seem that way. He smiled. “Good. A soft Brexit in my opinion is the least bad road for citizens in the EU27 and the UK if Brexit is inevitable. The consequences of a hard Brexit are quite concerning, both for citizens, companies and workers in the EU and the UK.”

He shook my hand. “Of course, this is what everyone is talking about,” he told me before toddling off to a meeting about the fishing industry.

Were they all talking about the Chequers Proposal, I wondered. I’ve got so used to MEPs generally ignoring internal UK politics that I was surprised. To test the theory I went to the cafe on the main concourse here – the Airport Bar, as it is known. I parked myself on a table by the entrance where I could accost MEPs as they entered.

First to stride in was the tall, blond Dane that is Morten Messerschmidt – a man known for his robust views and blunt language. He fixed me with his slightly unnerving steel blue eyes when I asked him what he thought.

“It is regrettable, but not at all a surprise,” he declared. “As properly the single most important decision for 50 years, Brexit has divided the nation. It would therefore be only strange if it didn’t have a severe impact on the politics as well.”

Morten glared around at the sea of functionaries crowding the cafe. “This points at the very problem with the EU today: Instead of limiting itself to truly transnational issues of mutual interest, it is reaching into almost any area of our society. This is not the union that the Brits – or Danes – ever asked for. The difficulties of leaving, alone, are a good example of what the EU never should have been. And adding the democratic defects, it’s institutionalised hostility towards the nation states and its inability to give satisfactory solutions, the people had to react. The outcome was Brexit.”

His gaze switched back to me. “I remain optimistic for the Brits – and as such on behalf of all of us. You are right to leave.”

Behind Morten came another blonde. This time the cheerful face of Kristina Winberg – honestly I’ve never seen her not smiling. I was pleased to see her for she represents the Swedish Free Democrats, the party on course to be the largest in the Swedish Parliament after their general election in September.

She gave an impish grin. “We are campaigning for Svexit,” she told me. “We want Brexit to be a big success. Then our people will vote to leave the EU too.” She had not heard details of the Chequers Proposal, but told me her views nevertheless. “You must leave completely. How you say it? ‘Clean Brexit’ or is it ‘Hard Brexit’? But you must go and make a big success. Then we will follow you.”  

Clearly the Scandinavians were out in force for next in was Anders Vistisen, another Dane. He is quiet, astute and able to see the long-term consequences of things.

“Oh yes, your Chequers Proposal,” he said stroking his beard. “For Denmark also this is important. You are a big market for our farmers.” He poked me in the stomach and winked. “You like our Danish bacon, I think?” I agreed that I did. He grinned. “But this Chequers Proposal? If this was the final agreement it would be not so bad. But as a start to negotiations it is not so good. You know the EU is ruthless at talks. They will want to take, take, take. I am not optimistic for a good deal for the UK, or for the EU.”

Now, it must be said that I don’t know Gabriele Zimmer at all well. She is the leader of the “European United Left and Greens”, so we don’t really have much in common. But she was sat all by herself, so I thought I would give it a go. What was her view?

Once we had got over the initial pleasantries, she was rather scornful of the UK behaviour so far. “Experience so far has shown that predictions about the British Government’s actions are difficult,” she said. “However, I take note that there are movements and that the political positions of the British Government are becoming clearer.”

What did she think the UK Government should do? “The UK cannot continue its cherry picking attempts as they tried with the European Single Market for goods. There must be a successful conclusion of the Withdrawal Agreement. This needs to include a ‘backstop’ provision for the Northern Ireland/Ireland border which faithfully reflects the commitments that there will be no diminution of rights for people.”

She tapped her coffee cup to emphasise her next point. “We need to see the outcome of the negotiations in the upcoming weeks. No more delays.” The person for whom she had obviously been waiting arrived, so I slipped away.

My next victim was a patrician of the old school: Hans-Olaf Henkel. Before becoming an MEP, Hans-Olaf was the President of the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie [the German version of the CBI], so he tends to see things from an economic point of view.

The new proposal is better than a hard Brexit or no deal. However, a real customs union would be better and so would be uninterrupted access for financial service institutions. It is now up to the EU to accommodate demands for British industry and banks to admit that what is good for British business is also good for their continental counterparts.”

So how would he move things forward?

“Now that Davis and Johnson are gone in the UK, the European Union should also replace Barnier and Verhofstadt to be able to reach an atmosphere of mutual trust! There has been actual and perceived arrogance in particular by Brexit spokesman of the European Parliament Verhofstadt and Commissioner Barnier. I refer for instance to the scandalous position not to let Britain participate in the telecommunication satellite project Galileo for reasons of ‘security’. Britain is a NATO partner but not good enough for such a project? Ridiculous.”

He smiled (knowing my views about Brexit): “Still better would be for both, Britain and the EU, to call the whole thing off!” He tapped me on the shoulder with his forefinger. “And tell your readers about my initiative The New Deal for Britain”. I said I would, and you can a look at its website here.

Another German came next: Ulrike Trebesius, a sworn enemy of Chancellor Merkel. She concentrated on the rulebook of the Single Market. It is disappointing that the German government has sided too often with the French and other centralists who believe in strong government and want to regulate everything. There was no need to get into the situation that we are in today. I regret that the British are leaving and I believe that this will cause a lot of damage to international production chains in Germany as well.”

So is Britain wrong to want to break away? She shook her head. “I can understand the British desire to leave a system that infringes too much on all areas of life and does not reflect their sense of freedom. Good luck.”

I had to leave the cafe at that point. A meeting was taking place in my office and I needed to get back to discuss amendments we would be submitting to a legislative file later that day.

Walking back to my office, I met Sander Loones, from the Flemish Nationalist Party. I asked him how he saw things. “The British position is moving in the direction of the trade-friendly Brexit that the Flemish government has in mind. For example, the May Government proposes far-reaching customs cooperation with full regulatory alignment with EU law for freight transport. Cumbersome procedures and heavy trade barriers are the last thing we want, not only for our Flemish ports, but for the entire Flemish economic fabric that lives on exports. The United Kingdom is our fourth trading partner.”

I recalled that Flanders includes the ports of Antwerp, Zeebrugge, Bruges and Ostend. What about the option of a WTO exit? “We absolutely must avoid getting into a ‘no-deal’ situation; a ‘hard Brexit’ is not an option for Flanders – no deal is a bad deal.”

So the balance of opinion among MEPs would seem to come out pretty much as you would expect. Those who represent areas that trade with the UK want a soft Brexit so that their own trade will not suffer – and so they support the Chequers Proposal. Those who themselves resent the powers of Brussels want the UK to make a success of a clean Brexit so that they can follow.

Of course, what really counts is how the Commission react. And that remains to be seen.