Last week, the British MEP Richard Ashworth received a standing ovation in the European Parliament. In what was perhaps his last speech as an MEP for south east England, he warned that Brexit was a “cautionary tale” and regretted that “no British prime minister ever explained to the British people” the benefits of EU membership.
He addressed the “people of Europe”, stating: “You are the generation who have lived through the longest period of peace and the greatest level of prosperity ever. Never take it for granted. Value it. Fight for it. Defend it every day.” The video of his speech was viewed more than half a million times on YouTube.
Ashworth, 71, was the Conservative chief whip in the European parliament from 2008 to October 2017 — when he was expelled from the party for voting on a motion that claimed “not enough progress has been made in the first stage of the Brexit negotiations” to move on to the second phase. (His MEP page on the European Parliament’s website confusingly still lists him as a Conservative.)
As the UK approaches another Brexit deadline (12 April), Ashworth is preparing to leave his post after 15 years. Sipping on an orange juice in the members’ bar at the European Parliament in Brussels, he reflected on the “sense of disbelief” felt in the EU over Brexit in recent months. “It wouldn’t be too strong a word to say that the UK is humiliating itself in front of the whole of Europe,” he told me. “It’s unbelievable.”
The EU initially responded to the stunning 2016 referendum result with sympathy and compassion. But the European mood is now defined by “impatience”, Ashworth warned. “There certainly is a sense that the UK has used up all its political capital.” Not a week goes by in Brussels without one of the EU leaders — EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council president Donald Tusk, or Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier — giving a speech in which the words “no deal is becoming more likely” inevitably feature.
By behaving “as if they’ve got all the time in the world”, British MPs are exhausting the EU’s goodwill, Ashworth sighs. He is right to conclude that, as worried as the EU remains about Britain, minds in Brussels have turned towards the looming European elections.
We meet on 2 April, ten days before the current Article 50 deadline, and the day after another vacuous speech by Theresa May. “We’ve got 10 days in which to come forward with a significant proposal, and that can only be four things,” Ashworth says, listing the options with little hope in his voice: “Revoke Article 50, which the PM has made quite clear she’s won’t; announce you’re holding a general election, but from what I understand the Conservatives would get absolutely wiped out; announce you’re holding European elections, which I don’t think we want to do; or announce that you’re accepting the withdrawal agreement, which the House of Commons made that clear it would not.”
If the UK jumps off the Brexit cliff, Ashworth, like millions of other Britons with links to the EU, will have divided loyalties. He lives in Surrey but owns a house in Provence, France, and has no intention of leaving Brussels just yet.
As he answers the thousands of letters thanking him for his passionate speech, he can’t quite get around to packing to leave: what if the UK is granted a long extension and is forced to hold EU elections? He doesn’t believe that will be the case (and bets a fiver that it won’t), but he will be ready to stand for re-election if needed. Otherwise, the plan is “to leave the stage when the music ends”. His colleagues may organise a last get-together on Brexit eve, but he won’t join. “I don’t think I want to mark the occasion.” His voice breaks a bit.
The Conservative Party is much changed since Ashworth was first elected as a Tory MEP in 2004. As a “pro-business, pro-Europe” British politician, he became the Tories’ leader in the European Parliament. “Now I’m so far on the ‘extreme’ that I’ve been thrown out of the party,” he says. Recent events such as Tory MP Nick Boles’ resignation from the party and the deselection threat to his fellow pro-European Dominic Grieve mean his former “broad church” of a party is turning into “a very narrow church with very bigoted views”. Theresa May should take a “long, hard look in the mirror,” he says. “To divide the country in the way that we have… it can’t be worth it. Nothing’s worth that.”
Brexit has illustrated the historic British misconceptions of Europe. Anywhere else in the EU, Ashworth says, if asked to define Europe, people will speak of a union of European values, of the importance of solidarity after World War Two and of the global challenges ahead, rather than simply the single market. “Whereas the United Kingdom has this default setting of being a market-oriented economy,” he explains. “When did you last hear an MP in the House of Commons talk about the union of values, or about solidarity? All they ever talk about is the market.”
Even now, as it looks into the abyss, the UK remains unable to understand the EU’s fundamental value of solidarity: France’s Emmanuel Macron, visiting Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, declared on Tuesday (2 April) that the EU would “never abandon Ireland” over the Brexit “backstop”. And the fact Britain has become a hostage of its romanticised history doesn’t help, Ashworth adds: “The concept of ‘Britain stood alone and won the Second World War’ is so deluded. Actually, if my history is correct, in 1939, the one thing that frightened Churchill more than anything else was standing alone.”
The isolated UK is ignoring warnings from history. Ashworth recalls the “enemies of the people” Daily Mail front page, which he says his German colleagues compared to newspapers from 1933: “Exactly the same,” he remarks. “This isn’t new. this all happened in the 1930s. It was called fascism, we just have different words for it now.”
The Tory whip was withdrawn from Ashworth and his fellow MEP Julie Girling in 2017 after they noted that the Brexit negotiations weren’t advanced enough — one of their concerns at the time was the impasse over the Irish border. “There’s no technology known to man anywhere in the world which operates a border that isn’t a border,” Ashworth says. “It’s not possible.” Although it’s tempting to tell May “I told you so”, the question Ashworth would rather ask her is “Why didn’t you listen?” Not just to him, but to former prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major, and the hundreds of others who raised the alarm while the Prime Minister chose to “appease the far right of the Conservative Party” at every turn, leading to “a helter-skelter ride to where we are now”.
There are now just eight days until the no-deal abyss. The EU is looking desperately at the House of Commons as it holds inconclusive vote after inconclusive vote.
There is still no definitive answer to the simple question the UK was asked from the start, Ashworth says, does it, or does it not, want a customs union? “If it’s a no, start putting the border posts up. Start preparing for all the things you’ve been warned of.”