As the triggering of Article 50 has now become a reality, I’m slowly coming to terms with becoming a political dodo. In around two years time the species known as ‘the UK MEP’ will cease to exist. Hopefully none of us will end up as exhibits in the Natural History Museum, although I know a few people who would be pleased to see Nigel Farage stuffed.
So observe us while you can and in the future you will be able to tell your grandchildren, “I once saw a British MEP. Interesting creatures, they migrated every week across the Channel to Brussels or Strasbourg, then returned just before the weekend”.
I’ve also been able to migrate further afield. One of the most interesting fact finding trips I’ve been on was to Romania with my fellow socialist members of the Parliament’s Agriculture Committee. In a packed two-day visit, we saw how farming and forestry practices are making progress since the country has moved on from a Communist dictatorship, to fully fledged EU Member State.
Whilst there we unexpectedly found ourselves staying in Ceausescu’s former country retreat. It had originally been built as a hunting lodge for the King of Romania but the communist dictator had taken it over, extended it, and added many opulent and extravagant touches. So my room was a bit more like Alnwick Castle than the Quayside’s Premier Inn.
The following morning I asked the official who ran the now government residence: “Who was the last person to stay in my room?” “I’m afraid I cannot tell you that”, she said with a smile, “But it is a matter of public record that the last state visit to Romania was made by President Obama”.
While there have been many interesting and enjoyable times over the last three years of being an MEP, such as this trip to Romania, it is all now over ridden by the savage and depressing reality of the process of leaving. Last week in Strasbourg the Parliament spent three hours debating its position re the Brexit negotiations. Repeatedly during the debate concerns were raised about the peace process in Northern Ireland and the rising tensions over Gibraltar. When the vote came the European Parliament voted decisively in favour of a fairly robust position. Labour MEPs didn’t support everything in the resolution but it is a constructive opening position that will allow us to move forward to the proper negotiations.
If I had to choose just one of the many reasons why I believe it would have been better for the UK to have stayed in the EU it would be the creation of peace in Europe. No country that has joined the EU has then gone to war against another member state. Twenty-eight member states living in peaceful co-existence is quite an achievement. Given the bloodiness of Europe’s history this always struck me as the strongest Remain argument, endorsed by the fact that in 2012 the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize for advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.
For me this achievement was starkly illustrated when I visited Natzweiler-Struthof last year. Situated 50km south west of the Parliament in Strasbourg it was the only Nazi concentration and extermination camp situated on French soil. Here between 1941 and 1944 an estimated 22,000 inmates, mainly resistance fighters from overrun European nations, were murdered. It’s a disconcerting place to visit not least because of its beautiful setting in the Vosges Mountains in Alsace. Such is the incongruity of the location that the guidebook begins with a word of caution for the visitor; “the Struthhof site’s beauty must not obscure the tragedies that took place here”.
So when my time as an MEP ends, yes, I’ll remember sleeping in the same bed as Barrack Obama but I’ll also remember standing next to the site of the gas chamber at the Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp outside Strasbourg. It will be a chance to reflect on the reasons why the EU was established in the first place, to celebrate over 60 years of peace and prosperity, and to hope that none of this is forgotten in the rush to make the British MEP extinct.