INTERVIEW: Brexit is here – so, what next for our MEPs?
- Credit: PA Wire/PA Images
The day that some people may have thought would never come, is finally upon us. Brexit is here and the United Kingdom has severed its ties with the other 27 members of the European Union after 47 years.
Our 73 MEPs have left Brussels and are coming home. I spoke with two of them, both elected only last May, about what they will be doing next.
Cambridgeshire came under the 'East of England' constituency, for which there were seven MEPs: Barbara Gibson (LibDem), Michael Heaver (Brexit Party), Catherine Rowett (Green Party), June Mummery (Brexit Party), Geoffrey Van Orden (Conservatives), Lucy Nethsingha (LibDem) and Richard Tice (Brexit Party).
Of these seven, only Geoffrey Van Orden has been a Member of the European Parliament for any length of time, having been elected 21 years ago in June 1999, for the 5th European Parliament.
The other six MEPs were all elected in May 2019, for the 9th European Parliament which opened on 9 July 2019, is due to run until 2024.
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These six UK MEPs have been in Brussels for just seven months, and now they're coming home, their political services no longer required due to Brexit.
But what have they achieved for the United Kingdom in those seven months? Apart from Geoffrey Van Orden, the others were fully aware when they stood for election that Brexit, although stuck in a seemingly never ending political quagmire, was a genuine possibility if the democratic wishes of 17.4 million voters were to be honoured.
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Following the Referendum on June 23 2016, the UK had become transfixed by the question of Brexit, as political wrangling between those who wanted to 'Leave' and those who wanted to 'Remain' in the EU shifted from the 66 million populous, to the 650 members of parliament and eventually came down to just one person, the Prime Minister.
After three and a half years of political, legal and emotional quarrelling, the third Prime Minister since the process had begun, Boris Johnson, exacerbated by stalemate in parliament, returned the question to the people of Britain and called for a General Election on December 12 2019.
The Conservative's 'landslide' victory ensured that Brexit would get done on January 31 2020, and so here we are with our seven MEPs coming home.
For Lucy Nethsingha, as a Liberal Democrat and staunch 'Remain' supporter, returning to the UK in this way will have mixed connotations, as she explained: "Obviously I'm saddened to be coming home - this has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and a genuine honour to represent my country in the European Parliament.
"I have enjoyed every minute of my time in Brussels and yes, I will be sad to leave behind some of the genuine friends that I've made over the past few months; but there is so much more to it than that.
"Had things been different, had the election gone a different way and the UK were remain within the EU, then we could've achieved so many things. Only when you are inside the Chamber of the European Parliament can you begin to understand how important the work that is being done there.
"During my seven months I joined several committees, I was chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs, joined the Delegation for Relations with the Arab Peninsula and took part in the Conference of Committee Chairs.
"The main responsibilities of the Committee of Legal Affairs are the interpretation and application of international and European law and the compliance of European Union acts with the treaties of the European Union.
"It is also responsible for legislation in the areas of civil law, commercial law, and procedural law and also in intellectual property, which is of particular interest to me as I wanted to work on legislating new technology like Artificial Intelligence that will benefit business, but also people as well.
"My first question to the Chamber asked how the parliament intended to act on the use of 3-D printed illicit objects in the light of the tragic events in Halle, Germany in October 2019? Two people were killed and a further two were injured when an attacker tried to enter the local synagogue during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The attacker used a 3Dprinted weapon, the blueprint of which he'd uploaded from Twitter.
"I've always been interested in intellection property law, and make no mistake AI is going to revolutionise the world as we know it; but there must be checks and balances on this because at the moment - especially with 3-D printing potential increasing all the time, while real-world prices plummet - the possibilities for misuse and abuse are only too apparent, as we've already seen.
"It's not quite the 'Wild West' out there as far as AI is concerned, but the need for legislation is all too obvious, so I'm genuinely proud of the team that I chaired, the four reports that I helped set up and the very important work that we have started."
Prior to leaving for Brussels last May, as a Liberal Democrat Lucy Nethsingha had represented the Newnham division on Cambridgeshire County Council since 2009, and had been leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on the council since 2015 (she had previously been deputy leader since 2011).
Since 2016, she has represented the Newnham ward on Cambridge City Council, a position from which she never resigned in spite of calls for her to do so from opposition councillors, and even though she knew she was going to Brussels.
I asked her why she had never resigned that position, and if it was secretly because she knew all along she may be coming home within just a few months?
"Obviously I hoped that my position in the European Parliament would be for the long-term; but after the party adopted the stance that it did on Brexit and Jo (Swinson) suggested she could lead the Liberal Democrats to a majority government that would revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit, I knew our time was up.
"Don't get me wrong, I supported Jo all the way, and I think it's very unfair the way she's personally been blamed by some people for our election results in December, when it was the party collective who made that decision.
"Jo paid a very high price for her beliefs ironically losing her seat in Parliament for East Dunbartonshire to the SNP, while she battled her way up and down England trying to defeat Brexit - a policy the SNP wholeheartedly support. Of course, having lost her parliamentary place, with it Jo lost the leadership of the LibDems.
"With hindsight, perhaps we should've taken a less direct approach to the policy of cancelling Brexit altogether, after all 17 million people did vote for it; but we believed that the voices of the 16 million who voted to Remain in the EU were being silenced, and it was our policy to offer an alternative.
"So, yes I never resigned my position as a councillor, and therefore my position is slightly different to some of my fellow UK MEPs who are coming home, in that I do have a job in politics to go back to as a councillor on Cambridge City Council - if they'll have me back [laughs].
"Seriously though, while I've missed my husband and my children terribly while I've been away, there's no chance of my taking a holiday or a break from politics. I've always kept up with the work being done back home in Cambridgeshire, and while I have a bit of catching up to do, I will be there on Monday morning back in the chamber at the City Council, ready to resume my role as a councillor.
"My time in Europe representing the UK has been the most exciting and amazing of my political career and I've enjoyed every minute of it; but I am still hungry for politics, it still excites me and I'm looking forward to the challenges of putting things right in Cambridgeshire now… and for the future."
Returning Brexit Party MEP, Richard Tice could not have a more different perspective to that of Liberal Democrat, Lucy Nethsingha.
Delighted and perhaps even a little gloating, the Chairman of the Brexit Party met with me just yards from the Houses of Parliament to explain how the 'job is done' and the battle won:
"Yes, I think we're entitled to be a little bit proud of what we've achieved over the past nine months. The political map of this country has changed for all time and in a way that perhaps a few years ago couldn't possibly be imagined, let alone realised.
"I got home just this afternoon having spent the last three days in Brussels during this momentous and extraordinary week culminating in the big vote last night [Wednesday] when by a massive, massive majority the MEPs voted to approve the Withdrawal Agreement.
"So, legally we're now leaving the European Union on Friday, 31 January 2020, using that agreement.
"This has been an incredibly proud moment for me personally in that I first became a euro-sceptic over twenty years ago, writing to Gordon Brown who was Chancellor at the time, imploring him not to join the Euro.
"I became part of the campaign not to join the Euro, one thing led to another, and yes, it's been a long journey but its built up to a crescendo culminating in where we find ourselves today.
"Funny thing is I've been busier since the 2016 referendum that I was before, because I could see fairly quickly there would be issues with Brexit.
"I set up the campaign 'Leave means Leave' and it was that group who started holding big rallies from September 2018, demonstrating against the Chequers Proposal which led to the two-week march from Sunderland to London where 30,000 people gathered in Parliament Square on the day we were supposed to leave, Friday 29 March 2019.
"That was the moment, there among those people, where we turned anger and frustration into hope and belief… and just fourteen days after that we launched the Brexit Party… and in a sense, the rest is history - but it's been pretty busy!"
Like all of our MEPs Richard Tice has been engaged during his time in Brussels working in various committees, so I asked him exactly what has he has been doing?
"Actually I have to say that all of our MEPs have been incredibly hard working in their committees, pointing out the pit-falls, identifying waste and there have been some quite extraordinary moments - I well remember Michael Heaver in the Budget Committee identified huge gaps in accounts, budgets, with billions of pounds missing.
"We identified £7bn that the UK Civil Service had left sitting there on the negotiating table to do with the European Investment Bank that Philip Hammond and his crew tried to wash under the table.
"We had meetings with the UK negotiating representatives who were gobsmacked at the depths with which we'd gone into and analysed the European Investment Bank accounts.
"So, yes, we were responsible for spotting that they'd totally unnecessarily left this £7bn of our tax payers hard-earned cash on the table there in Brussels… and that it's still there - regrettably we weren't able to persuade Boris to change that in time.
"But I believe when future negotiations about money come up, we should definably use that as a barraging chip - our guys have been very busy, they certainly haven't been sitting there on their laurels.
Being elected in May 2019, meant that the job was always going to have a time limit on it, so I asked Richard Tice if he had any regrets about having to come home so soon, now that he had dipped into the waters of European power?
"We were very comfortable in being hired for a job that we wanted to be fired from as soon as possible.
"The target was October 31 2019, but we always had our doubts that would be achievable and once we were proved correct, we worked towards helping Boris get his big majority in parliament by taking so many Labour Leave votes in Labour areas enabling the Tories to focus on those areas because we weren't standing against them in their marginally held Conservative seats, provided a massive foundation on which to build that majority.
"At the same time we've moved the Conservatives position significantly when we suggested the transition period not be extended beyond the end of 2020. That's been a massive wake-up call for the EU who are now quite worried about how we've been able to move the negotiating leverage our way because of that.
"Secondly, we've moved the Conservatives position so that future arrangements will only be based on a simple free-trade arrangement, as opposed to what had previously been talked about, a partnership based upon political and regulatory alignment.
"You'll have heard Ken Clarke say that the Conservative Party is now the Brexit Party in disguise. I'm hugely flattered and very proud of that comment. The Tories have a long way towards our position during what was a lengthy and challenging election period."
Richard Tice's background is in property development being CEO of the property asset management group Quidnet Capital LLP, so I asked him what next now that he is back from Europe?
"My businesses have effectively lay dormant for the best part of a year now, so I have to get back to work at some point and look after that.
"But make no mistake, my job as Chairman of the Brexit Party is not over yet. The Tories are very good at 'talking the talk'. What we have to do now is to monitor them very carefully over the coming months to ensure that they walk the walk'.
"It is our job to hold them to account, to praise them for talking the right language but to ensure that they turn that talk into action. We're pleased by the signals they're giving us especially the Fisheries Bill that has just come out - that's a good start - but again, we've got to hold them firm, be strong acting as a critical friend, but hold them to account if they drop the ball, which is very firmly now in Boris' hands.
"I do need a holiday! It'll be nice to see the family and my kids a bit, for me to have a bit of a break - but after that, well, I'm a campaigner. I will be back focusing on the causes and campaigns that I feel strongly about and where maybe I can make a difference, even if this time it'll be more from the side lines."
Sitting in the café just yards from the Houses of Parliament, I pointed out to Richard Tice the small group of flag-waving 'Remainers' who were stood outside, almost as if they were attending a wake. I asked him if he'd spoken with Nigel Farage, and what their plans were for Friday, Brexit Day?
"I've just come from a meeting with Nigel, and as you can imagine he's very upbeat at the moment, possibly even a little pompous. Hey… we won!! Even in the few weeks since the General Election there are signs everywhere of growth in the economy, domestic businesses are pressing the buttons on investment plans, global investors buying into Britain's commercial real estate.
"I genuinely feel that we could be in for a couple of years of huge economic growth in this country that will exceed the current forecasts. The really interesting thing of course is that now, politically, we're probably the most stable country and economy in western Europe - and that's a really important thing because investors can see that we have five or ten years of political stability into which they can invest in the UK, make good money with confidence - and that's a great thing because it's good for jobs, it's good for real wage growth - and these were the objectives of the Brexit Party.
"To be honest, we've not yet had the talk about whether I'll remain Chairman of the Brexit Party, or whether the party will disband. It's a bit early for that as I've already explained. I'm happy to do whatever people that I'm useful to do.
"In the meantime, we have a huge party to celebrate on Friday evening with upwards of 30,000 people coming into Parliament Square. I think that historians in years to come will look back on this time and say that we in the Brexit Party ensured that Democracy prevailed over the will of the establishment, over the scaremongering of the big multi-national businesses. Ultimately, the people won.
"So, yes, I do think that's something valid and worthy of a celebration - for me it's as seismic as Churchill fighting the establishment on appeasement in the thirties, the Corn Laws in the 1850s, the anti-slavery movement in the early 1800s - they were all difficult, challenging days when disruptors, innovators looking forwards, coming under enormous pressure just as we've done, but eventually prevailing in the end.
"It's going to be a busy day, loads of media of course - I'm organising the 'Leave means Leave' celebration event in the square. We kick-off at 9pm and when our sound-system plays the chimes of Big Ben at 11pm it'll send a tingle of patriotism through all of our spines; but what I really hope is that it will be something of a unifying moment when all those who took part, those who voted 'Leave' or 'Remain' can come together and start the healing process we all need.
"This is a significant constitutional event in our history - the biggest for nearly fifty years - and we're holding it outside the mother of all parliaments, by the people, for the people. It's done - we're out, now c'mon everyone let's all of us get behind this and make our own future.
"Yes, it'll be a big moment for Nigel, who said all along: 'Remember anything is possible if enough decent people are prepared to stand up against the establishment'; but I think the real winners in all this are the British people who ensured that Democracy prevailed."
My sincere thanks to Lucy Nethsingha MEP and Richard Tice MEP, for taking the time during a very busy week to talk with me.