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2019 EU Parliament elections pose tricky questions

by Charlie Mitchell | 14.09.2016

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, drew media attention on Tuesday with two very frank tweets. The first demanded that Brexit be “delivered before 2019, when EU politics enters into a new cycle”. Soon afterwards, he tweeted, “if UK wants access to #SingleMarket, it must also accept the free movement of citizens”. Today European Commission president Juncker also requested that Article 50 be triggered as soon as possible, in his state of the union address.

All this underlines the complexities in which the players in the European drama are embroiled, not least the UK for whom the timing of the elections could influence the terms of Brexit or even whether Brexit occurs.

Looking at the Parliament, Verhofstadt’s remarks could be put down to bravado. The EU’s three legislative bodies, the Parliament, Commission and Council, are all participating in the EU’s negotiations with the UK and vying for influence in them.

Perhaps Verhofstadt is flexing his muscles. But the statements of this key negotiator, who is strongly pro-European integration and anti-Brexit, reveal a niggling worry for the EU, namely the European Parliament elections in May or June 2019. If the Article 50 negotiations cannot be completed before the Parliamentary elections, this core EU institution could suffer embarrassment and a loss of influence.

Speaking to journalists in Strasbourg, Verhofstadt said: “I can’t imagine we start the next legislative cycle without agreement over UK withdrawal”. But the likelihood of this is growing, as negotiations are put off while the UK government tries to decide its position.

If article 50 were triggered in the second half of 2017 – less than a year from now – the two-year cut off for the Article 50 negotiations would fall after the elections to the European Parliament. British candidates could stand for election to the European Parliament.

“We are part of the club until we’re not part of the club, so unless a deal has been struck by the relevant time which sets aside the UK’s right to select MEPs, then the elections will go ahead”, said Stephen Weatherill, professor of European law at Oxford University.

The election of British MEPs during the latter stages of the Article 50 negotiations would be embarrassing at best, and highly problematic at worst. Who would stand for election if they had perhaps only a few weeks or months to sit in the Parliament before Brexit? Who in the UK would bother to vote? Turnout in EU elections in the UK is dismal at the best of times. Perhaps we would send a large clique of UKIP candidates, hell bent on muddying the waters before divorce proceedings are complete and joining Nigel Farage in a final bout of triumphalism.

A bigger issue is the legislative and negotiating power of the European Parliament, since the composition of the European Parliament could affect any deal with the UK. The Parliament is empowered to approve, amend or reject legislative proposals, though the Council is not legally obliged to react. However, the Parliament does have the power to reject treaties, as it did with the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in 2012. It could create fissures between the three key legislative bodies of the European Union.

Above all, a European Parliament containing recently elected British MEPs, voting on a Brexit deal, would surely be compromised. Such an awkward state of affairs will not be the Parliament’s fault. But it is not universally loved in Europe and any dent to its prestige cannot be good for the EU’s future.

The UK has its own problems too. The government might be tempted to complete the Article 50 negotiations before June 2019 to prevent giving UKIP a platform ahead of the scheduled 2020 general election. However, that narrow calculation would hardly be in the national interest. Pro-EU forces in the UK might think they could benefit from 2019 EU Parliament elections to influence policy if Brexit had not already happened, for example to demand a referendum on the terms of departure.

Verhofstadt is right to be worried, but he is not the only one with a headache.

Edited by Michael Prest

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