The news that Ukip MEPs had been brawling in the corridors of the European Parliament of Strasbourg was met with a collective Gallic shrug and roll of the eyes.
“What do you expect?” one self-described federalist nursing a Belgian beer said last night. “These are angry people.”
Steven Woolfe, the favourite to replace Diane James as UKIP leader, was hospitalised after a fracas sparked by his admission he considered defecting to the Conservatives.
“Big Bad Woolfe” – a nickname earned in a clash with a British European Commissioner – invited Mike Hookem, UKIP’s defence spokesman and a former commando, to “settle it outside”.
Blows were traded, the fight was broken up, and Woolfe went to vote in a session two hours later. He collapsed in front of ITV news cameras about 20 minutes afterwards.
Despite speculation he faced life-threatening injuries, Woolfe later issued a statement from his hospital bed saying he was “smiling as ever”. Hookem denies punching Woolfe, and told the BBC he was only defending himself.
For many in Brussels, the fact that a Ukip MEP bothered to turn up to a voting session was a bigger shock than a fight in the self-styled seat of European democracy.
The “Brussels Bubble” is used to Ukip’s heckling in the European Parliament’s plenary hall. It is accustomed to stunts performed from the party’s desks, all of which have a tiny Union Jack perched on them.
Disciples of the European project do their best not to notice when Ukip MEPs colonise drinking holes like England football fans in Marseille. In particular, Ukip likes to rent out the Old Hack pub opposite the European Commission for drink parties. Eurocrats silently navigate the clusters of chain-smokers huddled around Nigel Farage, the interim Ukip leader and MEP, as he holds forth.
Farage once joked he had been fined for smoking in his parliament office so many times, he had asked for a direct debit from his account to be set up. But since Brexit, his jokes have worn thin.
The European Parliament has a well-worn system for handling cranks, dissidents or extremists. It just freezes them out.
The system of large pan-European groups of political parties is closer to the coalition politics of Belgium or the Netherlands than the adversarial first past-the post culture of Westminster.
The unofficial grand coalition between the centre-right European People’s Party and the Socialist and Democrats is seen as necessary to ensure that the system gets bills passed.
Pro-EU groups band together and prevent troublemakers having any real influence on Brussels’ lifeblood – legislation and regulation.
When the BNP’s Nick Griffin was an MEP, he was often spotted wandering around the parliament looking for someone to talk to. Eventually, he found Jean-Marie Le Pen and still visits him in Brussels every now and again.
Building consensus through compromise is the holy grail of European parliamentary politics. Ukip isn’t remotely interested in either. That gets under people’s skin.
“They are not serious. They refuse to engage. They have not changed one comma of legislation,” one committed European outside the Brussels seat of the Parliament said of the party. “What’s the point?”
Ukip was studiously ignored by the European Parliament for as long as possible. But the 2014 European Parliament elections changed everything. Ukip returned more MEPs than any UK party, perhaps influencing David Cameron’s decision to offer the referendum as an election promise.
Ukip MEPs even began voting — Farage recently voted against the Paris Agreement on climate change.
As the referendum drew closer, Ukip became impossible to ignore. Pro-EU parliament groups branded them populists and lumped them together with France’s National Front and other far-right parties, which had also enjoyed unprecedented electoral success in 2014.
Guy Verhofstadt, now the parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, told Farage he was the biggest waste of EU money in Europe because of his attendance record.
“What are you still doing here?”, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asked Farage to cheers at the parliamentary debate after the referendum.
“Isn’t it funny?[…] You’re not laughing now”, Farage jeered to boos before suggesting an amicable divorce was in everybody’s best interest.
European Union lawmakers have looked on with incredulity as Jo Cox was murdered, Brexit was backed, Boris Johnson was elected foreign secretary, and Theresa May took aim at cherished freedom of movement rules.
They see Woolfe’s parliamentary punch-up as just the latest example of a self-inflicted injury in British politics.
James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.