In Brussels, doing the Brexit dance

Jonathan Bullock, a British member of the European Parliament, holds the Union Jack flag as he leaves the European Parliament in Brussels
Jonathan Bullock, center, a British member of the European Parliament, holds the Union Jack flag as he leaves the European Parliament in Brussels on Friday.
(AFP / Getty Images)

The night before Brexit, Scott Ainslie was dancing in a kilt.

The British EU lawmaker held a beer in one hand and waved his jacket around his head, trying to keep step with the hundred or so others gathered to bid Britain farewell from the European Union.

Dancing under strings of golden EU stars and flags in a crowded restaurant in downtown Brussels, the crowd — a mix of pro-European British lawmakers, European Parliament staffers, and city residents — clicked their heels to traditional Scottish and Irish music.


“It’s been defiant, and joyous, against the darkness that we’ve been inside,” Ainslie, a member of the Green Party who voted to remain in the EU, said during a break between dances. “That room has been packed all night with people just having fun.”

As Britain officially ends its 47-year membership in one of the world’s most powerful political and economic blocs, British nationals who reside in Europe’s capital struggled to come to terms with an uncertain future. On Thursday and Friday, they both celebrated Britain’s time in the EU and mourned the country’s withdrawal, set to take place at 11 p.m. London time Friday.

On Thursday night, Brussels’ Grand Place central square was illuminated in the colors of the Union Jack for an event meant to commemorate “the long friendship between the people of Brussels and the British,” according to the event’s Facebook page. The city also dressed up its iconic statue, Manneken Pis — a boy urinating into a fountain — in a Union Jack waistcoat.

Bars across the city held “Brexit parties,” and people created Facebook events, including one advertising “drinks to drown our sorrows.” Another event planned for Friday night promised attendees British ciders on tap and jacket potatoes with beans and cheddar cheese.

At the event in the restaurant, billed as a ceilidh, a traditional Irish and Scottish gathering, some attendees were ambivalent about partying on the eve of Brexit.

“We don’t know what this is,” said Paul May, 31, a British security consultant as he watched people spin on the dance floor. “We’re celebrating.”

He paused, then corrected himself. “We’re not celebrating.”

May, normally based in Berlin, had come to Brussels to symbolically say goodbye to his European friends.

“Yesterday was sad. Today is less sad. Tomorrow will be more sad,” May said, referencing tearful speeches from British lawmakers made in Parliament on Wednesday.

Joanne Houston, a Scottish woman raised in Italy, said she appreciated that the event brought people together — literally — by linking arms and dancing to a live band.

“It’s nice they’ve managed to turn this into something quite fun,” the 27-year-old said, adding that she does not hold a European passport but is in the process of applying for Irish citizenship.

One attendee added that the ceilidh was more uplifting than other parties she had attended earlier, which were simply “about being drunk.”

Thursday night, EU lawmaker Magid Magid, 30, former mayor of Sheffield, England, held an anti-Brexit party in the Place Luxembourg, across from the European Parliament. At the fete, attendees wore red, green, or orange stickers meant to indicate whether they were European or British in need of a European passport.

Once Europeans and Brits in need of European citizenship matched up, Magid officiated over sham weddings.

On Friday afternoon, Magid lounged in his cluttered office in the Parliament building, where his staffers were packing their belongings in cardboard boxes.

Magid, on the other hand, hadn’t started clearing out.

“I have a to-do list around here somewhere,” Magid said, stifling a yawn after being out with friends until 4 in the morning. “But I don’t know where.”

Magid was elected to the Parliament last year and was only in office seven months. He, like the 72 other British EU lawmakers and their staff, are officially out of work at the end of Friday.

When Magid returns to Britain on Sunday he’s not sure what he will do next.

“Maybe I’ll take a break,” he said. Or, maybe he’ll take up wrestling, which he used to practice in Britain.

“I think there’s a way to really match politics and wrestling together,” he said. “It’s a niche.”

A few blocks away, at the Chapel for Europe, British pastors held a Brexit church service Friday afternoon. Musicians wore scarves bearing the stars of the European Union and the church leaders called for peace and hope amid times of uncertainty.

Patrick Lambert, a lay minister and retired EU official, prayed for ongoing cooperation between the EU and Britain, despite their separation.

“Dear Lord, we thank you for the European Union,” said Lambert to the crowd gathered in the chapel as some attendees wiped their eyes. “We give thanks to the progress made during this time in terms of increased prosperity, greater security and more solidarity. Above all, after the world wars of the last century, we give thanks to the peace that has prevailed in Europe.”

Sarah Jane King, a former EU official and a pastor in training, said that “for most people here, this is a sad time, an angry time, an anxious, uncertain and somewhat fearful time.”

She invited attendees to write one or two words describing their feelings about Brexit.

Not everyone in Brussels was unhappy about Britain’s divorce from the European Union.

On Friday morning, lawmakers from the Brexit Party walked out of the European Parliament for the last time, accompanied by a man playing the bagpipes and waving the Union Jack.

“Today we celebrate the beginning of our independence,” said Brexit Party lawmaker Ann Widdecombe to a crowd of reporters in front of the Parliament building. “We believe that Britain can go forward into a future rejoicing.”

Lawmaker Ainslie, for his part, planned to catch a train to London on Friday afternoon and spend the day with European friends, as was fellow Green Party lawmaker Ellie Chowns, who closed the ceilidh Thursday night with a short speech thanking EU citizens for their friendship.

A la prochaine,” Chowns said in French, to applause. Until next time.