Brexit delayed to Halloween as challenges for the EU and the UK loom large
The new Brexit D-day is marked on the calendar as the 31st of October 2019. During the last European Council, EU leaders have agreed to grant a further six months’ extension of the Article 50 timeframe, so as to allow London to figure out a coherent Brexit strategy and avoid a no-deal cliff-edge. In fact, despite a blatant opposition from French President Macron, the tireless diplomacy of Mrs. Merkel has succeeded in granting Mrs. May the fruits of yet another compromise of the EU Council Brexit sessions.
The latest renvoi in the Brexit saga brings with it some unintended consequences, most importantly for its impact on the upcoming European elections, due to take place between the 23rd and the 26th of May 2019 across the EU. On the other hand, further challenges are arising for the stability of the UK as a united nation, with tensions in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The Consequences for European Parliamentary elections
The UK taking part in May elections means that the previously agreed reform of the seat distribution in the European Parliament is now stalled. As pointed out in our previous article for LabEuropa, if the UK is a member by the time of voting, it will elect 73 MEPs.
The plan for a renewed EP after-Brexit entailed a reduction in the total number of representatives from 751 to 705, scrapping in part the slice of British MEPs and in part redistributing their seats to other members. The new seat distribution is due to remain valid, but frozen whilst the UK is still a member state. This means that the countries which would have benefitted from the increase in the representation of their delegations will still elect extra representatives, but the latter will not be allowed to take up office up until Brexit is finalised.
Leave or Remain? This is still the question
One of the red lines imposed by the EU for granting a further Brexit delay has been the obligation for the UK – as a full member of the EU – to hold European Parliamentary elections. However, this need not mean that the prospect will necessarily materialise, as the extension has been characterised as being a flexible one.
In a first scenario, if Westminster ratifies the withdrawal agreement by the 22nd of May, the UK will leave the EU without taking part in European elections.
Second, if Westminster approves the deal between the 23rd of May and the 30th of June, British MEPs will be elected, but will never take office. As a result, the UK’s 73 seats will be redistributed.
In a third scenario, if the UK Parliament approves the withdrawal deal after the 2nd of July, the outcome would not be much different, as British MEPs would decay and additional MEPs from other Member States would take office.
Should I stay or should I go?
Nevertheless, the fact that British MPs could suddenly change their mind and overwhelmingly approve May’s deal has proven to be very unlikely – as indicated by the tireless debates held in the House of Commons and the failure of the indicative votes – this highlighting a political impasse in Westminster that the spectrum of the European elections seems unlikely to be able to break.
The participation of London in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections also prompts questions concerning the reformed architecture of the EU. As the UK will be, de jure, still a full member of the EU, its MEPs will participate in choosing the Commission President, as well as have the right to select a commissioner. It is still uncertain how this will impact the stability of European institutions.
The Political situation across the Channel: new political parties
The earthquake of Brexit has had its signs felt even in one of the most stable political arenas in the world. As the traditional parties continue to lose votes, new actors are emerging on the British political spotlight.
On the one hand, the pro-European field has seen last February the founding of ‘The Independent Group’, created from seven dissident MPs from both Conservatives and Labour. Two members of the European Parliament, former Tories, have also joined the group, criticising the PM’s approach to Brexit. The group will run for the upcoming European elections with the name ‘Change UK’, on a centrist, pro-European platform.
On the other side of the spectrum, Nigel Farage has stepped back into politics, and he seems to have done so from the main door. His ‘Brexit Party’ seems to be the antidote of orthodox Brexiteers to the impasse of the Westminster system, and Farage’s silver bullet for UKIP’s drift to the extreme, possibly Islamophobic right. The Brexit Party is gathering the support of unsatisfied Tories as well as attracting voters in historically Labour-held heartlands in northern England.
The Consequences of Brexit in the UK: tension in Northern Ireland ….
Tensions in the political arena are further mirrored in the state of affairs in the two pro-European countries of the UK: Northern Ireland and Scotland.
In Londonderry, Northern Ireland, the spectrum of the Troubles has come back to mind with the death of journalist Lyra McKee in mid-April. The homicide, which has thus far been revendicated by the New IRA, has gathered unanimous support in favour of a downscaling of the recent tensions, but also highlights the political confrontation on the ever-thorny matter of the Irish border question in the Brexit talks.
… and in Scotland
In Great Britain, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, the situation is only apparently calmer. In Scotland, Holyrood prepares further plans for a Scottish independence referendum. Scottish First Minister Sturgeon has outlined on Wednesday the 24th her new plans for Scottish independence, which is now set to be achieved by 2021. However, a Section 30 order – under which was carried out the 2014 referendum – would require the approval of Downing Street, which has pointed out its reticence to allow the Scottish Nationalists to hold another vote on their self-determination. Whilst the prospect of yet another referendum is far from materialising, the SNP points to a substantial change of circumstances in its quest for independence, pointing out that Scotland has overwhelmingly voted to remain part of the European Union in 2016. Thus, a vote for its independence would allow its people to choose between unity with Europe, or unity with the United Kingdom after Brexit.