Another big Brexit week begins. What’s expected?

And why are the European Parliament elections so important?

A pro-Brexit leave the European Union supporter takes part in a protest outside the House of Parliament in London [File: Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press]
A pro-Brexit leave the European Union supporter takes part in a protest outside the House of Parliament in London [File: Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press]

London, United Kingdom – Last week’s Brexit drama led to MPs opting to delay the European Union divorce at least until the end of June.

However, the decision is not unilateral and any extension of Article 50 of the EU treaty – which allows members to leave the bloc – must be approved unanimously by all 27 remaining states.

The next opportunity for EU leaders to discuss the issue will be at a two-day European Council (EC) meeting starting on Thursday – just a week before the current Brexit deadline of March 29.

But it is not yet clear whether this meeting will prove decisive, or how long the granted extension will be.

After Prime Minister Theresa May‘s deal with the EU was voted down by parliament for the second time this year, MPs also cast a non-binding vote to rule out a no-deal Brexit. 

The option of a disorderly departure at the end of March remains on the table, however, as no deal is the default legal position under Article 50.

Looking further ahead, European Parliament elections are expected to take place between May 23 and 26.

Extending, but what for?

May aims to make a third attempt, on Tuesday, at getting her deal through Parliament.

If it is a case of third time lucky, she will ask for an extension ending before the European elections, which should be granted at that stage.

If it doesn’t, or if Tuesday’s vote is pulled as some British media have speculated, the scenarios will be more complex. And so will the choices facing the EU.

A number of EU leaders have said they remain open to an extension as long as the United Kingdom can provide a valid justification for it.

“They will want to make sure an extension is a price worth paying, that it’s going to make a difference,” Georgina Wright, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government in London, told Al Jazeera. “If there’s a general election, a second referendum, or a change in the government’s own red lines, then there might be more appetite for a longer extension.”

May is hoping to avoid this and has been trying to get the Eurosceptic wing of her own Conservative Party and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) behind her deal, saying a long delay might lead to Brexit being cancelled. 

They have so far voted down the deal over concerns for the “backstop” protocol of the withdrawal agreement, which aims to keep an open border in the island of Ireland. Critics, however, argue it could “trap” the UK within EU’s trade rules indefinitely.

The opposition Labour Party wants to see a “softer” Brexit, including a permanent, UK-wide customs union and close alignment with the single market.

Over the weekend, it emerged that Labour, which has recently announced its official support for a second referendum, will push an amendment to the so-called “meaningful vote” that would make support for May’s deal conditional on putting it to the people.

The EU has no interest in making it easy to leave the bloc. With the rise of populism in the European Parliament, you do not want to give the impression that the EU is a bad negotiator.

Sarah Wolff, director of the Centre for European Research

The amendment doesn’t specify whether remain or leave without a deal could be other options on the ballot paper.

Eurosceptics believe no deal is better than a bad deal, and Leave campaigners have talked about events in Parliament this week as a “betrayal” of the public’s will. 

Former UKIP leader and current MEP Nigel Farage urged EU leaders this week to veto the extension.

The European Parliament’s lead Brexit spokesman, Guy Verhofstadt, spoke out against a long extension beyond the European elections, arguing it could be “hijacked” by the Brexiters.

“We will talk only about [Brexit], and not about the real problems, and the real reforms we need in the European Union,” said Verhofstadt.

If May’s third attempt does not pass but there’s a significant improvement in the consensus for it, a fourth “meaningful vote” is tipped as a possibility.

An existential problem

The EU has made clear that if the UK wants a longer extension, it will have to take part in the European Parliament elections at the end of May. 

The new assembly’s first sitting is on July 2, and should the UK still be part of the EU by then, it will be required to have representation.

According to some British media reports, a leaked document to EU ambassadors claimed that legal issues could arise if the UK was still part of the bloc by that date without participating in elections.

The document said the EU would “cease being able to operate in a secure legal context” – meaning it would have to terminate the UK’s membership to prevent the functioning of EU institutions from being affected.

While legal opinion remains divided on this issue, “purely from a technical point of view, the EU needs to know now if the UK is going to participate because currently they’re drawing up their party lists on the basis of a new European Parliament that doesn’t have UK seats in it”, Wright explained.

“Secondly, you’d be denying UK and EU citizens living in the UK the right to stand and vote in the elections.”

Sarah Wolff, a lecturer and director of the Centre for European Research at Queen Mary, University of London, argued that without further guarantees on a way forward, the EU has little to gain in granting a long extension or watching the UK take part in the European Parliament elections.

“The EU has no interest in making it easy to leave the [bloc]. With the rise of populism in the European Parliament, you do not want to give the impression that the EU is a bad negotiator and that you can actually come back to it.

“[Brexit is] the third crisis we have faced in the past decade,” Wolff said, adding that while the eurozone and migration crises caused rifts between the members, there hasn’t been much divergence on the issue of Brexit. 

“EU leaders have understood that with Brexit, it is important to show coherence and unity. And they are already moving forward.”

Robert Ford, a politics professor at the University of Manchester, points out that while the UK participation in the European elections could provide a contingent of additional allies for other eurosceptic forces – who are likely to do well – in the European Parliament, “it won’t make a difference to EU institutions or campaigns everywhere else”. 

“The European Parliament elections aren’t about Europe anywhere,” Ford said, “people tend to vote according to national agendas and national political context.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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