The European Parliament and Brexit (Part I)
by Francis Jacobs (formerly European Parliament staff)
Brexit has important potential implications for the European Parliament, reducing its size, altering the composition of its political groups and its overall political balance, and posing questions about the ongoing role of both British MEPs and British staff members within the Parliament. At the same time the European Parliament is itself a significant actor in the Brexit process, not as a direct negotiator but in helping to shape the debate, and also in having veto power both on the EU-UK divorce agreement and on the longer-term EU-UK relationship. These two facets of the European Parliament and Brexit are discussed in two blog posts, Part I (today) and Part II (forthcoming on Thursday, 15 March).
Institutional Impacts of Brexit on the European Parliament
Brexit has important potential implications for the European Parliament, reducing its size, altering the composition of its political groups and its overall political balance, and posing questions about the ongoing role of both British MEPs and British staff members within the Parliament.
The first and most obvious institutional impact of Brexit is that the European Parliament would lose its UK members and thus have 73 vacant seats. Unlike in other policy areas, the Treaties give the European Parliament the formal right of initiative on its own composition, though the final decision is taken by the European Council. At its February 2018 plenary session the European Parliament voted to leave 46 of the 73 seats vacant and to redistribute the remaining 27 seats amongst the member states on a basis that will compensate for existing biases in representation, so that Ireland, for example, would go up from 11 to 13 seats, and a number of other Member States would also gain seats. No member state, however, would lose a seat.
This decision came after an earlier debate as to whether some of the remaining 46 seats should be used to create an additional transnational constituency in which candidates, perhaps notably any « Spitzenkandidaten » (European political party lead candidates competing to be President of the European Commission), would run across the whole of the European Union. This idea had been mooted for many years, but Brexit represented a unique opportunity to create such a constituency, as it could be carved out without any loss of national representation. Almost all of the EP political groups were divided on this proposal but, in the end, it was substantially defeated, in particular because of the opposition of the majority within the European People’s Party. The European Council has since had a discussion on the matter and any deeper consideration of the idea, supported by President Macron and some other leaders (including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar), was pushed back from the 2019 to the 2024 European Parliament elections.
If and when Brexit takes place the structure of the Parliament’s groups and its internal balance of power is likely to be very different, although it is also true that Parliament’s political groups have often been very fluid, and new constellations of parties could well be formed after the 2019 elections.
On present figures, the main beneficiary would be the European People’s Party (EPP) which, after the earlier departure of its British Conservative MEPs, would be the only group not to lose members. The Liberal Group (ALDE) and the European United Left Group (GUE) would also lose only marginally, the former because the UK Liberal Democrats only have one MEP after their electoral defeat in 2014, the latter because there is only one Sinn Fein MEP from Northern Ireland.
There would also be a number of significant losers, notably the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group ,who would lose their 20 Labour MEPs, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) who would not only lose their 20 Conservative MEPs but would also have a very different character without their main founding party, and the Greens/European Free Alliance Group, which would lose MEPs from 3 parties (3 UK Greens, 2 SNP and 1 Plaid Cymru). The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD), whose largest component is UKIP, would disappear, having too few countries and members, and the populist right within the Parliament could thus be contained within one group, Marine Le Pen’s Europe of Nations and Freedoms (ENF).
All the above would only become manifest in 2019. Until the end of the 2014-19 Parliament, British MEPs can continue to play a significant role, chairing political groups and EP committees, acting as Parliament rapporteurs on legislative and other subjects and having a considerable impact on EP decisions, including on its votes on Brexit and on the EP’s own future composition. Sixty British MEPs, for example, took part in the EP’s recent vote on the matter, with 35 opposing the idea of transnational lists, 18 abstaining and only 7 supporting it. UK MEPs thus have more freedom of manouvre than other UK institutional actors within the EU, and UK concerns are better reflected in the EP than in other EU institutions.
What will happen to British staff in the EP is another sensitive question. Political group staff and MEP assistants will be particularly affected but even Parliament’s permanent British staff, who are European rather than British civil servants, are likely to see their future promotion prospects severely curtailed.
A final question of particular interest in the institutional context is whether Brexit might, ironically, reinforce the European political parties, currently much weaker than the political groups within the European Parliament. British political parties will continue to be represented in the various European political parties, and they may thus come to play a more important liaison role after Brexit.
Francis Brendan Jacobs worked for the European Parliament from just before direct elections in 1979 until the end of April 2016. Much of his career was as a staff member on various European Parliament committees and from 2006-2016 he was the head of the European Parliament’s Information Office in Ireland. He is co-author (with Richard Corbett and Darren Neville) of the classic textbook, The European Parliament, now in its 9th edition. He is currently based in Ireland, giving lectures on the European Union at UCD, Maynooth and other Irish Universities, as well as in a number of other countries. His latest work, The EU after Brexit: Institutional and Policy Implications, will be published in June 2018.