BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage was booed and heckled in a raucous special session of the European Parliament on Tuesday as he accused the EU of imposing a superstate on its citizens and predicted other countries would leave the bloc like Britain.
Facing Farage, who sat with a British “Union Jack” flag planted on the table in front of him, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asked: “Why are you here?”
When Farage interrupted Juncker’s speech to applaud the results of last week’s British vote to leave the EU, the Commission chief shot back: “That is the last time you are applauding here.”
The exchanges underscored just how fraught ties between European officials and British politicians have become since the vote on Thursday, which left far-right anti-European parties across the bloc cheering and governments fretting about political and economic aftershocks.
It came hours before Prime Minister David Cameron met EU leaders for the first time since the referendum. The other 27 leaders will gather on Wednesday.
The parliamentary session began on a friendly note, with Juncker air-kissing Farage, acknowledging sadness at the outcome of the referendum and paying tribute to Jonathan Hill, the British financial services commissioner who resigned on Saturday after campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU.
Hill, a popular figure among EU colleagues during his 18 months in Brussels, appeared overwhelmed by the outpouring.
But the air of sombre civility did not last long, as leading lawmakers accused the Leave camp of having lied their way to victory.
In a fiery speech, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt accused British politicians of creating a “toxic climate” of uncertainty since the Brexit vote and described former London mayor Boris Johnson, a Brexit advocate and leading candidate to replace Cameron, as a “selfish man” who had put his own political ambitions above the interests of his country.
German Manfred Weber, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leader of the biggest group in parliament, took on Farage in the packed house: “If you had an ounce of decency today, you would apologise to the British people. Shame on you.”
Many of the speakers appealed for unity and pressed Britain to speed its withdrawal from the EU to end uncertainty that has roiled financial markets and sparked concern about contagion to economically weak continental countries.
But Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, hailed the Brexit vote as the most momentous event in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“It is a cry of love by a people for their country,” she said. “It is a huge victory for democracy and a slap at an EU built on fear, blackmail and lies.”
Speaking to reporters earlier, Farage appeared to backtrack on disputed claims by the Leave campaign that an exit would allow London to redirect 350 million pounds ($467.81 million) per week they alleged it sent to Brussels to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS).
Farage estimated the savings at 34 million pounds per day, significantly less than promised on a weekly basis. Experts have said the 350 million pound figure is a distortion.
“If you had said this before the vote I could have congratulated you,” Juncker said. “But you lied.”
Farage has long used the Parliament, where UKIP has won seats much more easily than under Britain’s voting system, as a platform for his campaign to get Britain out of the EU.
By the time he rose to speak, hissing from other members of parliament had grown so loud that parliament president Martin Schulz was forced to admonish members. Recalling he was laughed at when he arrived in the chamber 17 years and spoke of Britain leaving the EU, Farage taunted MEPs: “You’re not laughing now.”
He called Brexit vote a “seismic” result that offered a “beacon of hope” for democrats across Europe: “I will make one prediction this morning,” said the former commodities trader.
“The United Kingdom will not be the last member state to leave the European Union.”
Editing by Noah Barkin and Paul Taylor