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Home » Brexit, Elections and Governance, EU, European Parliament

A way out of the Brexit morass?

Submitted by on 09 May 2019 – 14:15

Sir Michael LeighBrexit-bound Britain will participate in this month’s European Parliament (EP) election, unless UK prime minister, Theresa May, and opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, manage to push the thrice-rejected EU withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons in the coming days. Sir Michael Leigh, a former chief negotiator for EU enlargement at the European Commission writes about Brexit and the uncertain future of the Europe.


United Kingdom has every incentive to avoid the EP election, which, following the local elections, promises to be a rout for the Tories, a set-back for Labour, a victory for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and a moderate success for the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, Greens and new pro-EU Change UK Party.

A “deal” would consist of Corbyn’s accepting the withdrawal agreement in exchange for the prime minister’s undertaking to ask the EU for a commitment to a customs union (CU), as the basis for Britain’s future relations with the EU. The two parties are wrangling with each other and internally over the principle of a CU, whether it should be temporary or permanent and whether the “deal” should be endorsed by a referendum. A CU would reduce the need for systematic border controls between the UK and the EU-27, supposedly making the controversial Irish “backstop” unnecessary.

If the UK House of Commons quickly approves the withdrawal agreement on this basis, Britain would not participate in the EP elections, sparing both major parties an embarrassing defeat. The UK would leave the EU as soon as the necessary legislation is adopted. Corbyn could claim that the government had adopted his preferred scheme, a CU, even if under another name. Theresa May could give way to a Tory successor, as she has promised, her mission accomplished.

But even if Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn stitch up such a deal, they will find it hard to corral enough of their MPs into the division lobby to approve it. Customs union is anathema to many Tories because they think it means “Brexit in name only” and would exclude their dream of beneficial British free trade agreements for goods with countries around the world. Many Labour MPs, seeking a softer Brexit, would question whether Theresa May’s successor, probably an uncompromising Eurosceptic, would stick to any agreement she might have reached with Mr Corbyn. Some Labour parliamentarians would insist on a “confirmatory referendum,” abhorred by Corbyn, a closet Leaver, because of the risk of a popular vote to remain in the EU. Corbyn will wish to avoid the taint of backing a Tory Brexit and may be setting the prime minister up for another failure in prolonging the talks.

In any event, customs union, alone, would not be enough to ensure “frictionless” trade between the UK and the EU-27, including Ireland. The UK as a whole would still have to implement EU single market rules to remove the need for veterinary, plant health and other checks on goods transported between the UK and the EU. It is far from certain that the two sides would agree to this.

For the EU, cherry picking single market rules, while excluding free movement of workers, has always been a non-starter. For the UK, alignment with single market regulations would make the country a permanent decision-taker – the opposite of “taking back control.” Nonetheless both sides might be ready to bury their differences and use creative drafting to permit Brexit to go ahead.

But British politicians are not counting on a deal and the smaller parties are preparing to contest the EP elections.

In the EP elected five years ago, Labour had 20 of the 73 British seats that were due to be eliminated or re-allocated to other member states before Britain won its latest Brexit extension. Labour forms part of the Socialist group (S&D) in the EP that stands to lose seats in the election. Labour’s ambiguous election manifesto, sidestepping a possible second referendum, would not inspire many of its supporters to come out and vote.

The Conservatives also have 20 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), 18 in the largely Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists Group, with 2 belonging to the centre-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP – Christian Democrat). The Tories are struggling to raise funds, agree a manifesto and field candidates for the EP election. Neither major party has even begun to campaign while the smaller Leave and Remain parties are rearing to go.

The EPP will lose seats, mainly to illiberal nationalists, but is most likely to remain the largest group in the new EP. With its lacklustre, right-leaning Bavarian lead candidate, Manfred Weber, the EPP will fall short of the previous controlling majority it enjoyed together with the Socialists (S&D). The EPP, S&D, and their allies, will probably have to share power in the new EP with the Liberals who look like forming a new political group together with French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche. The Greens may also be needed to form a majority.

This broadening of the main working alignment inside the EP would be healthy in itself. But it will be hard to negotiate and could delay the choice of leaders for the EU’s main institutions. Several heads of government, eying jobs for themselves or their protégés and unimpressed with Weber, will challenge the “lead candidate” arrangement, adopted informally in 2014, whereby the head of the political group receiving the most votes becomes Commission president. Resulting squabbles might mean that caretaker teams are still in office in Brussels at the end of October, when Britain might again face the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit, if the withdrawal agreement is not approved earlier.

Across the EU, illiberal nationalist parties will garner additional votes. Nigel Farage’s legions would give Eurosceptic populists in the EP a further temporary boost if the UK participates in the election. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right Lega, has tentatively brought together for the EP election Eurosceptic hardliners from Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany and Italy. But they are riven with disputes, especially on minorities and relations with Russia. If they manage to stay together, after the election, they could form the second largest bloc in the EP, with up to a third of the seats. This could give them a voice in post-electoral power-broking.

The EP must approve the new Commission team to be nominated at a summit after the election. At this meeting, EU heads of government will bargain over the appointment of new bosses for the top EU bodies (Commission, Central Bank, Council, Parliament, and diplomatic service – “EEAS”). They do not wish continuing British participation to contaminate these already difficult decisions. In Britain, both Conservative and Labour leaders want to spare their parties the embarrassment of participating – unsuccessfully – in the EP election, at a time when Britain is heading for the door.

This is a spur for them to reach a compromise on the withdrawal agreement but may not be strong enough to persuade Parliament to approve a compromise that crosses so many red-lines. So, a fresh crop of British MEPs will probably be heading to Strasbourg in July. However, their tenure will be rather brief with a new cliff edge looming by 31 October. If the EP elections, and how to avoid them, do not lead Britain out of the Brexit morass a second referendum may become inescapable.