In my first week as an MEP, I was delighted to find that my Twitter feed included lots of interest in classical music and literature: Beethoven and Schiller. It soon became apparent that it wasn’t a cultured debate, but vicious condemnation of us turning our backs during “Ode to Joy”.
The EU officials had demanded that we stand for the “national” anthem, and we objected to that great work being hijacked as a federalist "Anthem of Europe". We were accused of being philistines and disrespecting European civilisation. Novelist Philip Pullman scolded me for my “gross insult to Beethoven”.
As it happens, I love the universal brilliance of Beethoven; all the more reason to object to the EU claiming him for itself. Why do some Remainers assume that a vote to Leave – and a protest against the EU bureaucracy – is somehow a rejection of the wonders of European culture?
A rather overblown story in the Observer claimed that the renowned Three Choirs Festival scheduled for August wasn’t selling out. As the concert programme features the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, this was another opportunity to blame Brexiteers for the collapse of 200 years of culture. According to classical music critic Norman LeBrecht this is not quite the real story, but the Observer went with it anyway. Looking on the bright side, it means there are still tickets available, and if our Strasbourg protest has done nothing else, I hope it encourages Remainers, Leavers – indeed everyone – to go and listen to some beautiful music.
Maybe it’s because I’m from a left-wing tradition that protests of all shapes and sizes seem to be an important part of political life. The right to protest is worth defending, surely? Just ask a Hong Kong student or a member of the Gilet Jaunes. But from the reaction to our protest you’d think that the Brexit party had destroyed democracy, rather than demonstrated against its absence. Our protest lasted a couple of minutes. No milkshakes, no rude slogans, no Extinction-Rebellion nudity or Greenpeace disruption. Like the Canadian and Turkish feminists who turned their back on Trudeau and Erdogan, we merely used a traditional, silent method and refused to bend the knee. After all, that’s why we were elected.
I have been bemused by the media’s over-the-top reaction to our protest, while they seem not to have spotted many of our fellow MEPs across the chamber who defiantly sat throughout the anthem. This included three pro-Brussels SNP MEPs who remained seated to show solidarity with excluded Catalan MEPs and a demo of thousands of loud, angry flag-wavers outside the parliament building.
I’m distinctly ambivalent on the Catalan issue, but the fact that Spain’s former president Carles Puigdemont and ex-minister Toni Comin, have been forced into exile, while former vice-president Oriol Junqueras remains in prison is surely an important story for the mainstream media. To add insult to injury, Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell has been parachuted into the post of EU High Representative.
Quelle surprise. Within 25 minutes of finally sitting down, parliament was dismissed. Anti-democracy in action. The Brussels bureaucrats were still wrangling over their stitch-up of candidates for the top jobs. All except the most sycophantic Europhile condemned this so-called “selection process”. It is not just that German CDU defence minister Ursula von der Leyen had never even been mentioned as a possible replacement for Jean-Claude Juncker, or that she’s considered a dud at home. It was that the European Council effectively ignored the European Parliament’s Spitzenkandidat, or “lead candidate” system, which was set up to inject an element of notional democracy into the appointment of the EC president.
Liberal Dacian Ciolos demanded that the EU “democratise the process of appointing leadership roles”. Iratxe García Perez of the centre-left socialists, complained that EU leaders can’t “lay out the council position and say that we have to vote for it”. Centre-right spokesperson, Gonzalez Pons declared: “President Tusk, I cannot support…the lack of respect that you’ve shown.” And Pons is from von der Leyen’s own EEP political grouping! It seems that the Brexit party is not alone after all. There are real tensions here.
Never has a 90-second speech been so parsed or wilfully misinterpreted as Ann Widdecombe’s reference to slavery and “oppressed people turning on the oppressors”. Personally, I liked the nod to Brexit as an anti-establishment revolt. A strange criticism of Widdecombe’s speech was that it was disrespectful to the EU. Good. We’re the Brexit party for God’s sake. We don’t respect it. Some people understood it better than others, of course. I suspect that the Greek working class might think it was all too prescient given that Christine Lagarde, the woman who imposed IMF austerity on their country had just been appointed to run the European Central Bank.
An accusation of disrespect couldn’t be levelled at Lib Dem Martin Horwood’s maiden speech. Wearing his ‘B******s to Brexit’ T-shirt (disrespecting the majority of the British electorate is apparently OK), he thanked president Tusk for his “patience” (grovel, grovel) and hoped his successor would continue “that policy of time and patience and understanding” (grovel, grovel)”. This cringeworthy display of servility reminded me of why Brexit party MEPs were elected in the first place.
We are there to expose anti-democratic, anti-popular sovereignty trends whether in the EU or closer to home. There may not be much solidarity between British MEPs but with the EU in turmoil, I expect to make many European friends and allies supportive of our cause.
Claire Fox is a Brexit party MEP for North West England