Belfast Telegraph

MEP vote deals blow to PM's hopes for parallel Brexit talks

MEPs have voted in favour of a tough line on Brexit negotiations following a debate in Strasbourg in which Nigel Farage was heckled and rebuked for accusing the European Parliament of "behaving like the mafia".

The former Ukip leader was told to retract his "unacceptable" remark by the parliament's president, Italian Antonio Tajani, and said that, in respect of his national sensitivities, he would instead brand them "gangsters".

But Mr Tajani responded: "There are no mafia or gangsters here. There are representatives of the people. This is nothing to do with national sensitivities, it is to do with being civil and democratic."

MEPs heard the European Commission's president Jean-Claude Juncker and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier restate their rejection of Theresa May's appeal for divorce and trade talks to be held in parallel, insisting that the EU could not deal with its future relations with the UK until the terms of withdrawal were "fully resolved".

Both men also said Britain would have to pay a divorce bill to settle financial commitments entered into as a member state, with Mr Barnier saying: "We do not seek to punish the United Kingdom, we are simply asking the United Kingdom to deliver on its commitments and undertakings as a member of the European Union."

Responding to the former Ukip leader's description of the financial demand, estimated at around £50 billion, as "a kind of ransom payment", Mr Barnier said: "In fact, Mr Farage, all we are doing is settling the accounts. No more and no less."

MEPs backed by a margin of 560-133 a resolution tabled by the leaders of the main party groupings, which set out red lines for the upcoming withdrawal negotiations under Article 50 of the EU treaties.

The parliament - which has an effective veto on the deal reached after two years of negotiations - insisted Britain must meet all its financial obligations and rejected any "cherry-picking" of privileged access to the single market for sectors of the UK economy such as financial services.

The resolution backed the commission's "phased" approach to dealing with the terms of withdrawal before moving on to the question of trade, and warned that there can be no trade-off between security and the future economic relationship between the EU and UK.

Mr Farage predicted that many other countries would follow Britain to the exit door if the EU stood in the way of a free trade agreement by insisting on unacceptable terms or trying to impose tariffs on UK goods and services.

"If you wish to have no deal, if you wish to force us to walk away from the table, it is not us that will be hurt," he said.

"We don't have to buy German motor cars, we don't have to drink French wine, we don't have to eat Belgian chocolate. There are a lot of other people that will give that to us."

He said the European Council's proposal to give Spain a veto on future agreements concerning Gibraltar could be a "deal-breaker".

"You have shown yourselves by these demands to be vindictive, to be nasty," he said.

"All I can say is thank goodness we are leaving. You are behaving like the mafia. You think we are a hostage - we are not, we are free to go."

Mr Barnier warned MEPs: "No deal would have very serious consequences, first and foremost for the United Kingdom, but also for the European Union.

"The 'no deal' scenario is not the scenario we are looking for. We are looking for success - success not against the United Kingdom, but with the United Kingdom."

The leader of the EPP group of centre-right MEPs, Germany's Manfred Weber, said Britain had to accept that the EU would take a "tough negotiating position".

The UK could not simply pick and choose areas such as security, scientific collaboration and free trade where it wanted to co-operate with the remaining 27 member states, he said.

"I feel London thinks it will find the perfect deal and will take the positive points and leave the negative points," said Mr Weber. "This will not happen. Cherry-picking will not happen.

"A state outside the EU cannot have the same or better conditions than a state inside the EU."

Italian socialist group leader Gianni Pittella insisted the European Parliament would be ready to veto a Brexit deal if the conditions of its resolution were not respected.

And in a direct message to Conservative Brexiteers, he said: "You wanted to take back control, but what did you want to take back control of? You were promising people a better future, but your lies have caused absolute chaos in the UK."

And the parliament's Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt predicted Britain would eventually change its mind on Brexit.

"There will be, one day or another, a young man or woman who will try again, who will lead Britain again into the European family once again, and a young generation that will see Brexit for what it really is - a cat-fight in the Conservative Party that got out of hand, a loss of time, a waste of energy and a stupidity," said the former Belgian prime minister.

Mr Juncker - who shook hands with Mr Farage before taking his place a few seats away from him in the parliament chamber - described Brexit as a "profoundly sad" event.

"The choice of the British people, however respectable that may be, does not fit into the march of history - not European history and not global history," said Mr Juncker.

Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder predicted that voters will give a negative verdict on Mrs May's handling of Brexit at the May 4 local elections and the parliamentary by-election being held on the same day.

Ms Bearder told the European Parliament: " Sixteen million Brits did not say they wanted to leave the European family. Those who did won't be fooled again by the false promises from nationalists.

"This month of May, the British people will send a message to Mrs May in local elections and the Westminster seat of Manchester Gorton. That message reads loud and clear - 'You lied to us, we are angry and we want our country back. It belongs inside the European Union'."

Scottish National Party MEP Alyn Smith said: "I'm heartbroken, not for myself but for the people I serve and future generations.

"Scotland will not be silent in this process as our rights are taken away by an administration we do not support, a vote that we clearly rejected and a process that is demonstrably against our interests."

But the leader of Conservative MEPs, Ashley Fox, said that Brexit would be "a beginning and not an end ... the start of a new relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom".

He said: "Although we will be leaving the EU, we want to forge a deep and special partnership with our friends and allies in Europe."

Following the vote, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: "Theresa May's plans for a swift Brexit have been left in tatters. It's clear the Brexiteers' promises of a quick and easy trade deal with the EU were built on sand.

"We now face years of damaging uncertainty while living standards are squeezed and public services cut.

"But the door is being left open and Article 50 could still be revoked. That means the British people can still stop a hard Brexit and, if they want, choose to remain in the EU."

Speaking at a press conference afterwards, Mr Verhofstadt did not give a figure for Britain's exit bill, saying he wanted to agree a set of principles for the payment.

He said: "Our proposal is to agree on the principles and if we can agree with the UK authorities on the principles that all commitments have to be taken on board, that all liabilities have to be on the table, also the contingent liabilities, well then it will be easier, because if you agree on the principles, then you apply the principles and you have the figure."

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: "It is important that the European Parliament has reached agreed guidelines, and we particularly welcome the emphasis that negotiations should be conducted in 'good faith and full transparency'.

"Labour also strongly support the Parliament's insistence that a future EU-UK deal requires the UK to retain international standards on human rights, climate change, social rights and the fight against tax evasion and avoidance. Labour's six tests for the final Brexit deal made clear that there can be no drop in EU-derived rights and protections."

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