European Parliament elections in times of (delayed) Brexit
Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University)
At the time of writing, we are nearing the third anniversary of the Brexit referendum of 23 June 2016. While a cause for celebration or a grave feeling of loss, depending on where you stand on the issue, it almost feels like nothing much has happened since. In fact, while Brexit originally was to happen on 29 March of this year, British politicians have been unable to reach agreement on what that Brexit should look like. As a result, Brexit has been postponed, most recently until the end of October 2019.
After many ‘meaningful’ votes (oh, the irony…) we are now in a situation in which British citizens are asked to vote during the upcoming European Parliament (EP) elections of 23-26 May 2019, something that both the British government and the European Union (EU) wanted to avoid. What might this development hold for the EP elections?
The composition of the EP
The most visible and at the same time most confusing result of the EP elections taking place pre-Brexit concerns the future composition of the parliament. The inaugural plenary session of the newly elected parliament is scheduled for 2 July 2019, nearly four months before the new Brexit date. But already in June group composition will be discussed. Parliament’s main business will first concern the composition of the new European Commission.
As Simon Usherwood explained elsewhere on the DCU Brexit Blog, 73 of the newly elected 751 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) will be representing the British people. This has a direct effect on the composition of some groups. The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group was about to lose a large share of its membership – the MEPs from the Conservative Party – but will certainly have newly elected MEPs in their midst that will leave again when Brexit becomes reality. The same applies to the Party of European Socialists, of which Labour is currently a member of. The PES might benefit from this vis-à-vis the European People’s Party in the context of the Spitzenkandidaten contest, even though polls suggest that the EPP will remain the biggest party.
When (if?) Brexit becomes reality, the newly elected British MEPs will leave again. The number of MEPs will then decrease to 705. Of the 73 British seats, 46 will be reserved for future enlargements and 27 will be redistributed to other countries. Does this mean that MEPs for these seats will already be elected, but can only take up their seat after Brexit? This is an issue that may be more complicated than anticipated.
Euroscepticism and parliamentary politics post-Brexit
Whether Eurosceptic parties in other countries are to benefit from this situation is difficult to predict. On the one hand, they could use the current situation as an example of how the EU prohibits nation-states from going their own way – against the outcome of a popular vote. Yet, on the other hand, we have seen that support for EU membership has gone up since Brexit and the current situation may simply highlight the chaos that awaits one when wanting to leave the EU.
In any case, these are going to be interesting elections. As I already wrote elsewhere, we are seeing a political landscape evolve that better represents the topic that many citizens associate European elections with: are you for or against the EU? Whether we like it or not, with Macron pushing for a pro-European alliance and Salvini (soon to be joined by Orbán?) representing the Eurosceptic vote, we might see a campaign that also highlights this issue instead of the different policy choices to be made. And while the pro-European parties will remain the dominant force, Eurosceptic parties are projected to win more seats than ever before.
While their representation in the EP may be a good thing for EU democracy, whether or not an increased number of Eurosceptic MEPs will change EU politics and the functioning of EP is another story. As Nathalie Brack shows in her recent book, informal and formal rules limit the political opportunities for Eurosceptic MEPs. In addition, the way in which these MEPs engage with EP business ranges from near-complete absence to full engagement. This is partly to be explained by the diversity between Eurosceptic parties, with some being against any form of European integration, whereas other rather campaign for a different Europe.
If only we knew. The Brexit saga has been one of many expected and unexpected plot twists. During the campaign for the 2024 European elections, we may look back at this whole affair as an interesting experiment, after Brexit was rejected in another referendum in 2020. Or we may see an election campaign that is concerned with the politics of an EU that has moved on after Britain finally left on 31 October 2019. Or perhaps just a few months later.
Patrick Bijsmans is Assistant Professor in European Studies at Maastricht University and co-editor of the E-International Relations blog page ‘Brexit: A European Perspective’. His research interests include media coverage of EU affairs and Euroscepticism. Patrick can be contacted through Twitter and his personal website.