Many British voters are treating this election mostly as a litmus test for domestic politics with little practical consequence. However, the UK’s participation in the elections will have knock-on effects on important decisions in Brussels, potentially making important decisions harder for the EU. The size of the ensuing mess, and the degree to which the UK contributed to it, could influence EU27 attitudes to the UK’s continued presence in the EU come October.
Key decisions such as the allocation of the President, Committee Chairs and Vice-Chairs in the European Parliament could be complicated by the UK’s continued presence, as could the selection of the President of the European Commission. The UK, which will continue to benefit from all the rights and obligations of an EU Member State, will still be able to influence these decisions, without the legitimacy and long-term interest of other countries.
British MEPs distort European Parliament dynamics
British MEPs will take office as full Members of the European Parliament, but they will only stay until the UK ratifies the Withdrawal Agreement or else crashes out. Neither is likely to happen before the first plenary session of the new Parliament on 2 July, when the President, Vice-Presidents and Committee Chairs of the Parliament are elected. UK MEPs will therefore be in office during horse-trading over key positions in the EU institutions.
French MEP Alain Lamassoure has said he expects the Brexit Party will not “have the decency not to participate”. If Leave-supporting MEPs vote, Remain-supporting MEPs will also want to take part, meaning full British participation in a decision which barely affects the UK.
Furthermore, UK MEPs could then tip the balance amongst the large groups. Labour MEPs will boost the centre-left S&D while the Liberal Democrats will join ALDE, but the centre-right EPP group will lose out thanks to David Cameron’s 2009 decision to take the Conservatives into a new right-wing grouping. This will cut back on the EPP’s winning margin and potentially result in a lower ranking for Committee Chair positions according to the Parliament’s d’Hondt system. Another unintended consequence is that UK MEPs might hand significant leverage to Victor Orban’s right-wing Fidesz delegation, who have long been sitting in the wings of the EPP group, ready to move to a more right-wing group. With the S&D group snapping at the EPP’s heels thanks to additional Labour MEPs, Mr Orban’s party could determine whether the EPP is the largest group in Parliament or not – a powerful bargaining chip.
The far-right/nationalist alliance sought by Italian deputy PM Matteo Salvini could also benefit from the election of Brexit Party or UKIP MEPs, should they join the grouping, helping the Eurosceptics gain a Chair or Vice-Chair position – something they were denied in 2014.
Building the case against extension post-October
Most importantly, the UK government will have a vote on the nomination of the President of the Commission within the Council. UK MEPs can then vote on the nomination through their seats in Parliament, and their numbers may affect the Spitzenkandidat process. The Commission will not take office until 1 November, after the UK is supposed to have Brexited.
Should a clear winner emerge, the UK is less likely to swing the balance one way or another. However, should the decision come down to the wire and the UK’s presence was seen to complicate or delegitimise the EU’s processes - particularly when it comes to selecting the Commission President - this could harden attitudes in the EU about the UK’s half-in, half-out status. Significantly, it may build a stronger case against a further extension come October. EU budget negotiations are due to start in 2020 and these are difficult enough without having to factor in a departing Member State.