Brexit and the European Elections

Elections for the European Parliament are upon us. Prime Minister May has announced that the UK will participate. Given that the country was supposed to have left the EU on 29 March this is a rather extraordinary turn of events. It is still the Government’s policy for Britain to leave the EU, as soon as possible. So why, people are asking on both sides of the Channel, are Britons voting to elect representatives to the legislature of that organisation?

The 27 member states and the UK extended the Article 50 process to 31 October, meaning the UK can remain a full Member State until that date. If the UK manages to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement before then it could leave sooner. But few in Europe consider it likely that this will happen because in Britain the Government and Parliament remain deeply divided over Brexit. Europeans understand that there is no national consensus about the direction the country should take, and little chance that this will emerge anytime soon. In the event that the UK stays in the EU until the end of October or beyond, there is a legal requirement, according to EU law and treaties, that it has representation in the Union’s decision-making bodies. This is why Britain is participating in the European elections.

Patience is wearing thin, but there are still many who press for Britain to get the time it needs to find its direction. This is not just the product of goodwill towards Britain, and there still is some, but there is a healthy dose of self-interest in this approach too. Whilst officials we speak to in EU Member States proclaim that they are ready for a No-Deal, they also state that this would be a lose-lose outcome. They believe Britain would be more harmed than the EU in such a scenario, but there are also serious downsides for Continental Europe to Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.

The elections for the European Parliament can in any event have a lasting impact on the UK and Brexit whether it leaves or stays in for a shorter or longer period. One reason for this is that the outcome of the elections can determine who becomes the President of the European Commission, and this person will to some extent determine the style and approach for future negotiations with the UK. We can be certain that President Juncker will be replaced sometime around the expiration of the new Brexit deadline at the end of October. There will be a new sheriff in town! And whilst it is the Member States who will determine the mandate for negotiations on the future relationship with the UK, the Commission President will be the boss of whoever is appointed the EU’s Chief Negotiator with the UK. The new European Parliament, which will be constituted on 2 July, will have a big say on the selection of the new Commission President and his or her team of Commissioners.

Manfred Weber is what is known as the Spitzenkandidat (or lead candidate) for the political grouping (EPP/Conservatives) likely to receive most votes in the EP elections. However, some member state heads think that he lacks sufficient experience as a senior politician to be chief executive of the Commission. Frans Timmermans, a Dutch social democrat and current Commission Vice-President is also running, but as the Parliament and most Member State Heads of Government are centre-right, he may also struggle to get sufficient support to win the job. There are others such as Christine Lagarde (IMF Head) and Michel Barnier (currently EU’s Brexit negotiator) who might get the position. And then there are Liberals, Greens and candidates from more marginal parities who have thrown their hats in.

It is important to mention that none of the lead candidates are anti-British. They may be impatient and frustrated that Brexit is not yet resolved, but on the evidence of televised debates in past days, they all acknowledge that many of the symptoms of the malaise that led to Brexit are also presenting themselves in their own domestic constituencies, and in the EU as a whole. The turmoil that Brexit has caused serves as a useful reminder that leaving the EU is no simple matter. Support for EU membership has generally increased across the EU. But at the same time, a deal that is unfair to the UK could further fuel Euro-sceptic movements across Europe. A point that is not lost on the candidates.