TORY leadership hopefuls insist the UK will leave the EU “deal or no deal” before October 31, but across the English Channel there is a strong belief the UK will stay.

“If Brexit happens” – with the emphasis on the word “if” – was a phrase regularly used at the meeting last week of the European Free Alliance (EFA), the political group in the European Parliament which includes the three SNP MEPs Alyn Smith, Christian Allard and Aileen MacLeod.

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There was a loud roar of laughter when Smith rattled off the series of “Brexit days” which have come and gone without the UK going anywhere.

“I’ve been joking with my new colleagues that we’ll be getting t-shirts made up with ‘I survived March 29’, ‘I survived April 12’, ‘I survived May 22’”, he said.

EFA brings together a number of progressive pro-independence parties across the bloc and last Wednesday in the European Parliament the group held their first meeting since the elections.

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Oriol Junqueras, the former Catalan vice-president who is in prison and on trial in Madrid over the 2017 referendum, is a member of the group.

His party colleague Diana Riba is also an EFA member. Riba’s husband Raul Romeva is also on trial and in custody in Madrid.

The three other members are Jill Evans, of Plaid Cymru, Tatjana Zdanoka, of the Russian Union [a party which represents Russian speakers in Latvia] and the Corsican Francois Alfonsi.

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On Wednesday afternoon the group gathered to discuss the election results and the strategy for the way ahead. They welcomed Allard, MacLeod and Riba as new members and said farewell to the SNP MEP Ian Hudghton, who will stand down at the end of June.

“It’s great to be back as we weren’t supposed to be here,” said Smith.

Allard, who is a French national, told the group he will speak in the Parliament for Scotland and fight for independence.

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“I want to make sure we not only stop Brexit but gain independence soon enough,” he said.

MacLeod, a former Scottish Government environment minister, who previously worked for five years for Smith in Brussels as his head of policy, is the second woman SNP MEP.

The first was Winnie Ewing – who became known as Madame Ecosse and was given the additional title of Mother of the European Parliament when she served as an MEP from 1975 to 1999.

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“For me, I am just so excited to be back,” MacLeod told the group. “I am so proud to be elected as a SNP MEP. I am only the second woman to represent the SNP here and delighted to be here for however long that might be. I am hoping for a full term and will be working very hard to make sure we are here for the full term and that we stop Brexit.”

Over 90 minutes or so there were discussions about which committees MEPs in the group would sit on, whether it should try to gain additional members and accept other MEPs with similar values.

There was also a debate about whether to continue the parliamentary alliance EFA has had with the Greens since 1999. Smith and Evans spoke in support of the arrangement, which is now expected to continue.

The European elections brought an end to the Parliament’s 40-year-long so-called Grand Coalition between the Socialists/Democrats and the centre-right European People’s Party grouping.

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With the fall in support for the traditional parties came a rise in support for the Greens, with the party’s numbers surging from 50 MEPs in 2014 to 72, as climate change moves centre stage on the cultural and political agenda across Europe. In the 2019-24 parliamentary term the Greens/EFA could end up holding the balance of power in the new parliament.

This kingmaker position will give them significant influence. The results of the elections will also shape the negotiations over jobs in the EU institutions, including Jean-Claude Juncker’s replacement as European Commission president.

The makeup of the parliament will be used by the 28 heads of state and government to guide their choice of replacement for Juncker and his counterpart in the European Council, Donald Tusk.

The parliament will have a vote on any choice of commission president.

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Smith told me he will be seeking the candidates’ views on Scotland’s position in Europe as well as Brexit and climate change.

“I will be asking them to clarify their own view on what Scotland’s position is and should be. I know they want Scotland and the UK to stay, but I’ll be saying ‘let’s have that on the record’. From my position it will be a question of ‘I might support you, but what are you offering Scotland?’”

He added: “If we had clearer expressions of regret about Brexit – such as of course the UK can change its mind – that would be helpful. It’s early days and the candidates have all to various extents said if the UK changes its mind Brexit doesn’t need to happen. But some have been more enthusiastic in that than others.”

The leaders of the 28 EU nations were expected to nominate Juncker’s successor at the European Council last Tuesday, but failed to do so.

Manfred Weber, of the EPP, Hans Timmermans, of the Socialists/Democrats, and Ska Keller of the Greens are among the contenders, but there has been much talk that Michel Barnier, the high-profile chief Brexit negotiator for the European Commission, could end up getting the much coveted job.

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Weber is the “spitzenkandidat” –or lead candidate – for the EPP, but French President Emmanuel Macron has hinted at support for Barnier, a fellow Frenchman and EPP MEP.

While the SNP MEPs and staff held a private group meeting following the EFA meeting, I set out to talk to some MEPs from other nations.

I WAS interviewing Esther De Lange, a Dutch MEP, and vice-chair of the EPP, when Barnier walked up to greet her.

Barnier held out his hand and I asked for his view on whether Scotland would get back into the EU if it became independent. Barnier wouldn’t be drawn and pointed to his role as the chief Brexit negotiator.

An hour or so later the SNP MEPs finished their meeting and we headed to a reception hosted by the Greens.

There were around 30 or 40 MEPs and staff in the room and the mood upbeat.

Philip Lamberts, the Greens co-president in the parliament and a member of the Brexit steering group, greeted Smith warmly, and congratulated him on gaining two more MEPs. Smith complimented Lamberts on the Greens’ success.

Among the Greens grouping are also a clutch of MEPs from the Pirate Party, which netted three MEPs from the Czech Republic and one MEP from Germany.

Their stated focus is on “improving access to free communication, culture and knowledge grow and creating a more enjoyable and humane society”.

They are also strongly pro-Europe, pro-free movement of people and in favour of self-determination for small nations.

Their numbers, like that of the SNP and the Greens, have increased in the European Parliament, while the expected bounce of the Euro sceptics across the bloc as a whole didn’t materialise.

With the growing influence of the Greens/EFA alliance, there could yet be a situation where Brexit is stopped and a new independence referendum happen.

I travelled back to Scotland with Allard on Thursday morning. Applauded in Brussels for declaring his commitment to winning independence, the greetings continued for him on his journey back home.

Congratulations were given by a fellow passenger on the plane, while a passing Yes activist and an independence supporter from Germany who were both passing through the airport stopped for photos and selfies.

It seemed that despite the shadow of Brexit, the mood among SNP and independence supporters is upbeat.