‘Epiphany.’ That was the word that Robert Rowland, soon-to-be-ex-MEP for the Brexit party, used to describe his discovery of the real inner workings of the European parliament. I met Rowland in Strasbourg, a mere eight months after his election last May, at his very last plenary session. With no small degree of pride, he showed me around the debating chamber, with its sleek interior and its hi-tech voting machines. He told me about the ‘very high-quality’ people he had met, such as Nathalie Loiseau, the former French Minister for European Affairs. So interesting, so affable! Some of them — he mentioned a former Czech minister — even know quite a lot about economics! I asked if he was going to regret leaving all of this behind on 31 January and he quickly reversed gear. No, no, of course not: ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ Still, the European parliament seems not to have been the evil institution he’d expected. ‘If this place had more power,’ he told me wistfully, ‘it would really improve the European Union.’
The last time I went to Strasbourg the year was 1994, the beautiful debating chamber had not yet been constructed and I was the foreign editor of The Spectator. The spokesman for the European People’s party — the centre-right party to which the Tories were then still affiliated — made sure I met lots of people and had several extremely good meals. The result of my trip was an article that pointed out a terrible paradox. Partly because they were so often teased about their allegedly large expense accounts, the typical Tory MEP worked very hard. Because he was so hard-working, he was helping to make the European parliament more efficient and productive. By making it more efficient and productive, he was enabling it to have more power. By helping it to become more powerful, he made himself more unpopular back home in London, where nobody wanted the European parliament to be powerful. The conclusion: ‘Torture a Tory. Make him an MEP.’
In the intervening quarter-century, the European parliament really has become more powerful, as well as more genuinely representative, so maybe it’s just as well that there won’t be any more Tories to be miserable in it. Nowadays, MEPs work full-time too — as I know, since I am married to one — scrutinising legislation, voting on legislation, caucusing with their colleagues. The Members’ Bar seemed to be full of people having meetings and sipping tea; wine was available in the Members’ Restaurant, but no one seemed to be drinking there either. Partly thanks to the recent growth of Green and Liberal parties (a big contingent of the latter arrived with Emmanuel Macron) the chamber is no longer dominated by the old centre-left and centre-right, and thus there are real politics too. Everything has to be negotiated across parties, across regions and across nations; major deals require the intervention of national governments, which is just as it should be. The various far-right groupings have also helped give a sense of urgency to parliamentary life, since they are a reminder of what could happen to a European country whose MEPs drift too far out of touch with their constituents: they might end up like Britain.
Although their torture is now officially over, the departing Tories didn’t seem to be jumping for joy. True, they were not as morose as their Labour and Lib Dem colleagues, some of whom become almost tearful when they talk about what leaving means for their constituents and their country, as well as for themselves. Still, not even the pro-Brexit Tories appeared to be celebrating. Daniel Hannan, a soon-to-be-ex-MEP, told me he plans to leave politics, possibly to involve himself in higher education. He was shocked by the low percentage of young people who voted Tory at the last election and reckons the problem is left-wing curriculums in universities. Are you sure, I asked him, that it doesn’t have anything to do with Brexit?
Everyone else seemed rather sanguine. Reports that ‘Eurocrats’ hope to ‘reverse Brexit’ are much overblown. A lot of people are relieved that the parliament can now move on, as there is a lot to discuss; alongside the UK withdrawal agreement, the situation of refugees in Greece is on the agenda for 29 January, for example, as are plans for transportation investment between now and 2030. Those who remain sentimental about Britain can join the parliamentary ‘UK Friendship Group’, whose first meeting was like the last day of school, with lots of people wishing one another well and promising to stay in touch. One continental MEP told me that she would miss her UK colleagues, and was planning a farewell party. ‘We will invite the British MEPs,’ she said, and then paused: ‘But not all of them.’
Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at the Atlantic magazine.