Published: 06:00, 29 December 2020
With just days to go until the UK begins life alone we'll be bringing you a series of features looking back at our strained relationship with Europe and exploring how we reached this point. Today political editor Paul Francis catches up with the MEPs of yesteryear and finds out where they are now.
To their harshest detractors, MEPs elected to the European Parliament had modest powers, were largely invisible and were on a lavish publicly-funded gravy train; to their supporters they were a vital cog in the democratic checks and balances of what had grown into a huge political institution.
The UK took part in the first EU election in 1979 - returning 81 MEPs representing regions rather than the parliamentary constituencies MPs were elected to.
The 1979 poll hardly galvanised the electorate - the turnout was a dismal 32% against a pan-European average of 63% and the lowest of all the countries taking part.
But while many elected remained relatively obscure, in recent years, their profile rose - some more than others - and they were in the glare of the political spotlight as the Brexit debate took hold.
So, who were they and what has happened to them after life in Brussels?
Nigel Farage (Brexit Party)
Depending on your viewpoint, this is the politician who more than any other bears the responsibility for Brexit.
The ultimate Marmite politician, he used his position as a member of the European Parliament to campaign for its abolition, becoming renowned for speeches in which he taunted who he described as faceless Brussels bureaucrats. But he often faced criticism for being absent from key committees he was a member of.
He was elected Ukip MEP for South East England in the 1999 European Parliament election and was re-elected in 2004, 2009, 2014 and then in 2019 as a Brexit Party candidate.
Where is he now?
After returning to the political fray as the leader of the Brexit Party which triumphed in the European elections in 2019, he recently announced he was rebranding it as Reform UK, a party focused primarily on challenging the government’s approach to coronavirus.
The party intends to put up candidates in next May’s local council elections and there are signs it will broaden its agenda.
Farage has said his party will stand candidates against "any and every" local politician who backs the government's plans for a "green revolution".
He said recently the party would oppose any plans for cycle lanes and road closures.
Daniel Hannan (Conservative)
A trenchant and outspoken critic of the European Union, best known as a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, he was elected in 1999 and served as an MEP for 21 years.
He was fond of saying his ambition was to make his job redundant and throughout his two decades as an MEP spoke out about what he regarded as the EU’s profligacy - a confirmed Brexiteer long before a certain Nigel Farage came on the scene.
Where is he now?
He decided he wanted a clean break from politics and has taken up lecturing - but has continued writing as a journalist and political commentator. He has also taken up a position with the Board of Trade, a British government body concerned with commerce and industry.
He says: “I wanted to quit politics cleanly and try something else. I said at the time that I had always dreamed of teaching, so I am now giving that a go. I’m lecturing in economics at Buckingham University and some overseas institutions. Frankly, the lockdown restrictions make it a challenge. It’s very hard to get the same connection over Teams, and I feel for students all over the country who are being denied in-person tuition.
“I am walking a lot. I can’t tell you how much I used to miss the countryside when I was sitting in Brussels committee meetings.”
Peter Skinner (Labour)
The former South East MEP, who comes from Maidstone and served from 1994 and 2014, was jailed for four years in 2016 after being convicted of wrongfully claiming cash from the European Parliament that should have been used to cover staff costs.
Some of the cash was used to buy a Land Rover Discovery for his ex-wife and monthly maintenance payments as part of his divorce settlement.
He also spent thousands on his honeymoon to Hawaii with his second wife.
Skinner was found guilty of one charge of fraud, one charge of false accounting and one count of making a false instrument at his trial at Southwark Crown Court.
Catherine Bearder (Liberal Democrat)
One of the longest serving of the UK’s MEPs, she served nine successive stints in Parliament and was an enthusiastic cheerleader for continuing to be in the European Union.
Where is she now?
She said: “I have mostly been locked up with the garden, scrabble and Netflix to keep my brain active. But I am on the Board of IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) and I’ve been elected to the board of Unlock Democracy.
"I realised we will never get back into the EU until we’ve sorted out our own democratic settlement, so thought I’d better put myself where I can do some good in that direction. It’s not been an easy year.”
Ann Widdecombe (Brexit Party)
The long-standing former MP for Maidstone and the Weald made a surprise return to frontline politics after she was persuaded to come out of retirement by Nigel Farage to stand as a candidate in the European elections for the Brexit Party.
Her decision to do so led to her having to resign as president of the Maidstone Conservative Association.
She was elected as the MEP for the South West but for a brief period of a few months as the UK then formally left the EU.
Mark Watts (Labour)
Served as a South East MEP between 1994 and 2004, when the county had representatives in east Kent and West Kent. The former Maidstone Grammar School pupil cut his political teeth as a Maidstone Borough councillor in 1986, giving him the distinction of being one of the youngest representatives in Kent. He lost his seat in 2004 when Labour was in a mid-term slump.
Where is he now?
After his two terms as an MEP ended he became an EU analyst and created his own company in 2009.
He is now chief executive of UK Transport in Europe (UKTiE), representing many of Britain's leading transport organisations like Britain's largest ports group ABP, the Civil Aviation Authority and Transport for London. He works and lives in Brussels.
He says it will be vital for UK transport to maintain its relations post-Brexit.
He said: “Even after Britain has left the Customs Union and the Single Market, UK transport will still want to maintain a constructive and informed dialogue with its European neighbours, and vice versa.
“The year 2021 will mark the beginning, not the end, of a new relationship with the EU, with ongoing negotiations and discussions continuing for many years to come.”
Caroline Lucas (Green party)
In 1999, Green Party candidate Caroline Lucas made an historic breakthrough for the party, getting elected as a South East MEP, benefitting from the system of proportional representation used in the EU elections.
She served until 2010 when she became the MP for Brighton Pavilion, marking another first for the party.