Nigel Farage was heckled in the European Parliament after accusing MEPs of “behaving like the mafia” over the conditions of Brexit. 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 national sensitivities, he would instead brand them “gangsters”.
The row came as the Parliament heard a string of senior MEPs insist that Britain cannot enjoy “the same or better conditions” in its relations with the European Union as full member states after Brexit. And the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, told MEPs that he expected the UK to return to the EU in the future, when a younger generation recognises withdrawal as “a loss of time, a waste of energy and a stupidity”.
But Mr Farage said last week’s delivery of Mrs May’s Article 50 letter was “a great historic day” applauded by millions around the world, and dismissed requests for a divorce payment as “a form of ransom demand”.
Referring to the European Council’s suggestion that Spain should be given a veto over future agreements on Gibraltar, Mr Farage said: “We believe in national self-determination, your aim and ambition is to destroy nation-state democracy. Gibraltar is clearly a deal-breaker on these terms.
“You have shown yourselves by these demands to be vindictive, to be nasty. 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 Farage told MEPs that if the EU tried to impose tariffs on exports from the UK, Britons could boycott European goods.
“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.
“Do you know, 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.
“A return to tariffs will risk the jobs of hundreds of thousands of people living in the European Union and yet what you are saying is you want to put the interests of the European Union above that of your citizens and your companies.
“If you continue with that route, it won’t just be the United Kingdom that triggers Article 50. There will be many more to come.”
MEPs in Strasbourg were debating the European Parliament’s red lines for any withdrawal agreement in two years’ time. The European Parliament effectively holds a veto on any Brexit deal as it must be approved by a majority of MEPs in a vote after having first received the assent of a qualified majority of national leaders in the European Council.
The debate came after British Prime Minister Theresa May said curbs on freedom of movement would not come into force immediately after Britain has quit the European Union.
Speaking during a trip to Saudi Arabia, Mrs May said there would be an “implementation” phase once a deal had been struck, with business and governments needing a “period of time” to adjust to the new rules.
“In terms of the deal that we negotiate and the arrangements that will come there, what we have talked about, you’ve used the phrase ‘transitional phase’; I have used the phrase ‘implementation period’,” Mrs May said.
“If you think about it, once we’ve got the deal, once we’ve agreed what the new relationship will be for the future, it will be necessary for there to be a period of time when businesses and governments are adjusting systems and so forth, depending on the nature of the deal – but a period of time when that deal will be implemented.”
Leaders of the main groupings in the European Parliament said they wanted “fair and constructive” talks with Britain during the two-year withdrawal talks under Article 50, but insisted that divorce talks must come before negotiations over future trade relations and that the UK will not be allowed to “cherry-pick” favoured elements of EU membership to keep.
The leader of the EPP group of centre-right MEPs, Germany’s Manfred Weber, told the Parliament that 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.
“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.”
Mr Weber said: “We are going to remain partners and friends but the UK has to accept the fact that there will be a tough negotiating position on the European side.” Both Mr Weber and the leader of the socialist grouping, Italian MEP Gianni Pittella, were scathing about the recent debate in the UK over the future of Gibraltar, and former Conservative leader Lord Howard’s suggestion that military forces might be used to put pressure on Spain.
Mr Pitella dismissed Lord Howard’s comments as “the words of lost dilettantes clutching at straws”, while Mr Weber warned: “We have taken this debate in the wrong direction, led by nationalists and populists.”
The Italian socialist leader insisted the European Parliament would be ready to veto a Brexit deal if the conditions of its resolution were not respected.
Britain would not be allowed to become a “tax haven” off the shores of Europe, he said. And he warned the EU would not back down on demands for a “divorce bill” – estimated at around £50 billion – telling MEPs: “It’s like any family. If you leave the house, you still have to pay your bills.”
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.”
Mr Verhofstadt said the UK had recovered from being “the sick man of Europe” thanks to its membership of the single market and had been helped by EU membership to “punch above its weight” in the world.
He said: “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.”
Former Ukip MEP Steven Woolfe, now sitting as an independent, said the European Parliament should remember Britain’s contribution in money and lives fighting Nazism and Communism on the continent.
“We are leaving a European Union that has forgotten the costs and sacrifices Britons freely gave to ensure you are free to exercise your diplomacy of the defeated in this chamber of the forgetful,” said Mr Woolfe.
The co-president of the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom grouping, Dutch MEP Marcel de Graaff, congratulated Mrs May on triggering Article 50.
Quoting Churchill’s wartime promise to “defend our island, whatever the cost may be”, Mr de Graaff said his message to Britain was: “You have regained your freedom and your sovereignty by invoking Article 50, by leaving the European Union.
“You have regained the opportunity to flourish as a nation, to control your borders, to make your own laws, to make your own trade deals.
“The bureaucrats from the EU will try to make you pay 60 billion euros, they will try to force you to comply with all EU directives and standards and to accept hundreds of thousands of migrants and accept the rulings of the European Court of Justice.
“Don’t give in to these demands. You are far better off outside the EU.”