17 May 2019

The UK is participating in elections to the European Parliament (EP) – three years after voting to leave the EU, and with the future of Brexit still uncertain. Few on either side of the Channel wanted these elections to take place in the UK, but the EU took the view that the extension of Article 50 to 31 October made it a legal necessity.

Much has been written about the impact of the EP elections on UK politics and the Brexit process. However, the UK’s unexpected involvement in these elections will also affect the EU and its institutions.

The Brexit impasse will have little immediate impact on the election campaigns in the EU27

 The UK’s participation and the ongoing Brexit process is unlikely to directly affect the election campaigns in the other 27 EU member states. After all, Brexit has not happened yet and the outcome remains unclear. For most voters in the EU27, there are more important issues at stake. Each country has its own set of complex national political issues, as well as pan-European issues such as immigration, security, climate change and global trade.

However, the Brexit process of the last few years – as distinct from the recent impasse – has had a more long-term influence on EU politics, which is likely to be borne out in these elections. In particular, the process appears to have dampened enthusiasm for exiting the EU among continental Eurosceptic parties, who instead now champion radical reform of the EU from within.

The UK’s participation will have a modest impact on the political composition of the European Parliament

 At 73 MEPs, the UK’s contingent will be one of the largest in the new EP – only France and Germany send more representatives. The UK’s participation therefore has the potential to influence the overall arithmetic of the EP – though it will most likely do so incrementally, rather than decisively.

Unlike most EU member states, the mainstream centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) has no significant presence in the UK. Given this, there has been speculation that UK participation might prevent the EPP from being the largest party, with Labour MEPs allowing it to be overtaken by the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D). However, current polling suggests that although Labour will be one of the largest individual parties in the S&D group, their inclusion will merely reduce the gap between the S&D and EPP – as illustrated below.

UK MEPs will also swell the ranks of Eurosceptic forces within the EP; current forecasting suggests the UK will elect a total of 35 MEPs from Eurosceptic parties (22 Brexit Party, 9 Conservative, 2 UKIP, 1 DUP, 1 Ulster Unionist). The procedural impact of this will be limited, however; even with UK MEPs, Eurosceptics will remain a minority within the EP, and will not be numerous enough to block legislation on their own.

Ultimately, the UK’s MEP contingent, like that of other countries, will be politically fragmented. As illustrated below, the 73 UK MEPs are likely to be almost evenly split between pro-EU and Eurosceptic parties, and will not act as a bloc.

The UK’s participation may also cast a shadow over the building of legislative coalitions. In a recent briefing, Open Europe argued that most legislation in the next Parliament is likely to be carried by a three-party ‘Grand Coalition’ of the EPP, S&D and the liberal ALDE group. The UK’s participation will probably reduce the size of this coalition’s majority (if only temporarily); only Labour (S&D) and the Liberal Democrats (ALDE) represent one of these three political groups, and their MEPs are expected to be a minority of the UK total.

The exact size of each group does not just determine its weight in votes on legislation – it also influences the number of official parliamentary positions a group is entitled to, such as committee chairs. Bigger groups are also entitled to more speaking time in debates and more EU funding to support their work. Groups whose ranks will be increased by the presence of UK MEPs may be able to take advantage of this.

Ultimately, however, many of these alterations to the parliamentary arithmetic are incremental rather than decisive. The following fundamentals remain the same with or without British MEPs:

  • The EPP will be a reduced force, while remaining the largest single group
  • The EPP and the S&D will lose their combined majority, and will have to rely on ALDE and other groups to pass legislation
  • Eurosceptic groups will remain a minority, albeit a large one.

 UK MEPs will have a say in some important EU decisions

 After the European elections, the process of choosing candidates for high profile jobs in the EU institutions will begin – including the appointment of the new President of the European Commission, where the European Parliament has a significant role.

As explained in Open Europe’s recent briefing, the candidate is nominally selected by the European Council, but must then be approved by an absolute majority in the EP. UK MEPs, despite being due to leave just months later, will therefore have a vote on the Commission President for the next five years.

With the likelihood of an increasingly fragmented European Parliament, there is a theoretical risk that the vote on the candidate for President could be close enough for UK MEPs to have a decisive say in the outcome. For example, Labour MEPs might be able to get a socialist candidate for President over the line, who would not otherwise have had a majority. While the UK MEPs might soon leave the EP, the new President’s reliance on their votes would undermine his or her legitimacy for the next five years.

In practice, however, it is far less clear that the UK’s MEPs will actually decide the outcome. The Council is likely to submit a consensus candidate, who they know has cross-party support, to the European Parliament – indeed, they will deliberately try to avoid a scenario in which departing UK MEPs have the casting votes.

Meanwhile, UK MEPs will also be able to participate in any plenary votes on EU legislation, although it is unlikely that there will be a significant volume of legislation between July (when MEPs take their seats) and October (when the UK is due to leave).

While the outcomes are unlikely to be drastic, the involvement of UK MEPs in EU decision-making highlights difficult trade-offs for the EU. Under the terms of the Article 50 extension, they insisted that the UK participated in the elections for reasons of democratic representation and fulfilling treaty obligations. However, the flip side is that UK representatives will have the ability to influence the future direction of the EU, and may have an impact long after they have left.

The UK’s participation also delays the reallocation of its seats to other countries

 As the UK was not expected to take part in these elections until recently, the EU had decided to reallocate 27 of the UK’s 73 seats to other countries. France and Spain were due to gain an extra five seats each, Italy and the Netherlands were due to gain three, Ireland two, and nine other countries one seat each. This reallocation will now be delayed; the extra MEPs in other countries will effectively having their seats “frozen” until the UK’s departure, now scheduled for 31 October. They will only take their seats in the EP if and when the UK leaves.

Non-member states cannot be represented in EU institutions, so when the UK leaves, its MEPs will have to leave too. This would effectively cancel out some of the political changes outlined above – for instance, the gap between the EPP and S&D would increase as Labour MEPs leave.