Brexit Update: A 2019 Horror Story or a 2020 Joke?

On Quibbl’s last Brexit update, we asked our readers to predict whether the UK and the EU would reach a divorce agreement by end of 2017. Now, nearing mid 2019, we find ourselves asking the same question – European politics staff writer Aurora Matteini takes us through how we ended up in this debacle, and what’s next for Europe.

Three years have passed since the Brexit referendum and we are still at a loss for what has happened and what will happen next. There are talks of extensions until the 31stof October 2019 or until the 1st of April 2020. This political situation has not only left us feeling bewildered but now has us wondering whether to define it as a horror story or a joke. Despite politicians seeming to be ‘busy,’ nothing has changed; the UK is still a member of the Union and no other future has been concretely established.  

For those of you new to this story, or those who feel as though this Brexit mess has been going on for approximately seventeen years, here is a brief timeline of events:

·     2016: The UK votes via referendum to leave the European Union

·     March 29, 2017: Prime Minister Theresa May triggers article 50, starting the two-year exit process.

·     2017- 2018: EU and UK negotiate an EU-UK exit deal.

·     2019:Theresa May attempts to pass her deal through the European Parliament.

·     March 29, 2019: The UK does not leave the Union but is granted an extension until the 12th of April.

·     April 12, 2019: The UK does not leave the Union but is granted an extension until October 31st 2019.

President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s sentiment towards the UK was accurately summarized by Politico in 2015 after he unveiled the first draft of a Brexit deal in 2016; ‘We may love you dearly, life would not be the same without you, but it’s not just about you’. Indeed, with European Parliament (EP) elections just around the corner, the effects of the delayed Brexit on EU procedures are numerous.

So how did the UK get an extension past the two years it had to negotiate Brexit?

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Prime Minister Theresa May asked the EU for an extension beyond the 29th of March due to a lack of agreement in UK parliament. This lack of agreement consisted of two rejections of her proposed deal, followed by the speaker of the house blocking another vote unless substantial changes to the deal or the voting outcome were guaranteed. This resulted in the possibility of the parliament taking over the Brexit proceedings. However, after a lengthy voting session in parliament, where many ‘types’ of Brexit were voted upon, no substantial outcome was achieved. May even tried to raise support for her deal with the possibility of her own resignation in June 2019, however this sacrifice hasn’t appeared to be enough to result in an agreement. Because of the lack of consensus in Parliament, May crossed the English Channel and asked the EU for a further extension. When May first asked the EU for an extension two options were proposed; a short extension until the 12th of April or a longer undefined one. Ultimately, the EU granted the UK the short extension particularly because any extension past the 12th of April would cause problems for EU Parliament elections. An extension past the 12th of April would mean that the UK would be legally obliged to participate in EU parliament elections because its status as Member of the Union remains unchanged. Ultimately the UK, very much to the opposition of French President Macron, was granted an extension until the 31st of October 2019.

EU parliamentary elections – what’s the deal?

The UK’s participation in EU elections raises many concerns. If the UK’s ‘leaving date’ is extended past the 23-26th of May (EU elections are not conducted on the same day in all Member States) and before the next European Parliament (EP) election period, it would pose issues for the composition of Parliament. Prior to the latest Brexit extension to the 31st of October, the EP had already planned to redistribute the UK’s seats. It had aimed to distribute 27 of the UK’s seats to the 14 member states which are considered under-represented. Thus, this uncertainty of the future composition of the EP causes instability as the member states who would have gained MEPs are now left in limbo. Should the underrepresented states nevertheless vote both for the seats which they are guaranteed and for the ones which may one day become available? (We should not forget that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that the UK can in fact decide not to leave the Union, meaning those famed seats could never become available to other member states.)

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Furthermore, the European Parliament is an important institutional actor and has co-decision-making powers. The Parliament, alongside the Council of the European Union, vote on initiatives brought forth by the Commission. This could be, for example, on subjects like the Budget, where both Parliament and the Council vote on amendments to the proposed Budget. Thus, if the UK remains in the Union, it means that there will be British MEPs in Parliament, British representatives in the Council and the UK head of government in the European Council, which will influence EU decisions. Does this cause issues of democratic accountability to European citizens in the other 27 Member states?

European citizens vote in EP elections by voting for national parties which then have membership in European Parties. Thus, in the European Parliament members are not meant to advocate for national interests, however as they are elected through national parties, they are not separate from the nation. Furthermore, the main focus of Eurosceptic and sovereignist parties is in fact their perceived national interest. Thus, this raises questions of who will win the next UK EU parliament elections.

Leader of the ALDE (Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe) party, Guy Verhofstadt, has been vocal on the likeliness that the UK’s involvement in EU elections would ‘import the Brexit mess into EU politics’. Especially given Nigel Farage’s new ‘Brexit Party’ and his threat of taking the UK government to the ECJ if EU elections were to not be carried out. (If the UK does not hold elections on the set date of 23rd May it will leave the Union on the 1st of June.) If re-elected, Nigel Farage, who left UKIP in a huff in December 2018 and has been an independent MEP since, would indeed continue the ‘Brexit mess’. This leads us to wonder if Farage will indeed gain substantial votes in the upcoming election and if this would then fuel more EU-wide Eurosceptic sentiment. Moreover, it raises the question of whether Brexit will be at the heart of EU policy-making.

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Additionally, as European Parliament elections are coupled with the new selection of the European Commissioner(s), having Theresa May in the European Council is worrisome. In 2014, the Splitzenkandidate (lead-candidate) process was introduced. With this new process each political party presents a candidate for the presidency of the Commission and the party which obtains the majority of votes then proposes their candidate for nomination to the European Council. For the 2014 elections, Jean-Claude Junker as head of the European People’s Party was proposed as European Commissioner. In the European Council, 26 out of the 28 voted in favor of Junker, whilst two (including Britain) voted against. With Theresa May in the European Council, would she try to advocate for a commissioner which would be more favorable to a better deal for the UK?

With the Brexit horror story hopefully coming to an end on Halloween 2019 (or April Fools 2020), whether it be with the UK leaving or the UK staying (or the other eight possible options that seem to be of interest to some UK MPs), it is important to reiterate that after four turbulent years Donald Tusks’ message is still very relevant: ‘We may love you dearly, life would not be the same without you, but it’s not just about you’. With 27 other Member states and the rise of populism and Euroscepticism, the EU needs to think about itself.

Still confused? Us too. But the Brexit/EU drama that will continue to unfold throughout the year promises to be one of the juiciest political stories, with plenty of twists and turns. Stay tuned for further Brexit updates from Quibbl.

Think you know more about this mess than anyone? Vote in our Brexit quibbls to see if you’ll be right.

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