"Shadow of Brexit looms over European elections"


6 May 2019

The United Kingdom and the other 27 EU member states had agreed that the British withdrawal from the Union would take place in good time before the elections for the European Parliament. But the postponement of the withdrawal deadline now means that the UK will have to take part in the European elections to be held on 23–26 May. The question is: what are the possible implications of the UK taking part in the elections, asks Thomas Persson.

Their outcome will determine the relative sizes of the party groups in the EP, and may therefore affect EU cooperation for a long time to come. When the new term starts, the incoming EP will appoint several leading officials, including a new President of the European Commission, according to proposals from heads of state and government in the European Council. Every Commissioner will undergo a parliamentary vetting process, and eventually the EP will approve the entire new Commission.

The Speaker and Deputy Speakers of the EP will be appointed and the most important positions, such as committee chairs and rapporteurs (who formally present various matters in the committees), will be allocated among the party groups. Later, in the autumn, the new EP and the Council of Ministers will jointly decide on both the long-term budget and the annual EU budget, which govern the Union’s priorities. Although the United Kingdom is set to leave, its elected EU parliamentarians (MEPs) may therefore exert decisive influence over these decisions.

Thomas Persson, Uppsala University

There was also a plan for the number of seats in the EP to be reduced, in conjunction with Brexit, from 751 to 705. Simultaneously, 27 of the UK’s 73 seats were to be redistributed to 14 other ‘underrepresented’ member states. For Sweden’s part, this was to represent one extra seat – raising the current total of 20 to 21. The remaining 46 seats were to be saved for future enlargement. However, owing to the postponement of the UK’s withdrawal from the Union, there will now be no redistribution until it actually leaves.

When the EU heads of state and government agreed on a ‘flextension’ of the British withdrawal until 31 October at the latest, PM Theresa May had to assent to the demand that the UK would conduct itself constructively and responsibly during this period. But the agreement does not apply to the British MEPs who will take up their seats in the newly elected EP: since there are no temporary parliamentarians, all those elected have the same rights, obligations and privileges. This is generating further uncertainty about the possible implications of the British MEPs’ presence in the incoming Parliament.

For Britain’s part, the European elections will serve as a kind of referendum on the withdrawal issue. The voting will become a matter of a domestic policy stance that is allowed to be almost exclusively about Brexit. For the other 27 member states, UK participation in the elections spells a risk of the focus on key political decisions being lost. These decisions relate to such issues as the climate crisis, future migration policy, threats to the rule of law and democracy, and the future competitiveness of the EU. The most important dividing line in the European elections is that between hardcore EU critics wishing to restrict EU cooperation and restore power to the member states, on the one hand, and those who, on the contrary, support greater integration and more in-depth EU cooperation in several areas.

The European elections will have a decisive impact on the future direction of the Union. But Britain’s divorce anguish may now bring a risk of key future issues for the EU being sidelined when Europe’s attention returns once more to the UK’s domestic policy conflict. Brexit is thus casting a shadow over what are regarded as the most important European elections ever.

Thomas Persson
Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer
Department of Government
Uppsala University

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Last modified: 2022-12-22