Brexit Britain set to wield little influence in new-look Europe

Far-right MEPs want British representatives to join their ranks, but Brexiters have little interest or influence.

Farage flag reuters
Nigel Farage unlikely to exert much power in the new European Parliament, analysts say [Vincent Kessler/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – After a meeting of the European Union’s 28 leaders in Brussels earlier this week, European Council President Donald Tusk said Brexit had been “a vaccine against anti-EU propaganda and fake news” – essentially serving as a prime example of how bad leaving the European Union could be.

Despite Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party taking home the largest share of the British vote in last week’s European Parliament elections – close to 31 percent – analysts believe the UK’s result has more impact at home than in Europe.

The Brexit Party gained 29 seats in the new chamber – as many as Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU, and more than Matteo Salvini‘s League in Italy, which got 28 seats as 34 percent of Italians who voted opted for his far-right, anti-migrant party.

But Britain remains wrapped up in its own Brexit bubble and few major political forces across Europe are giving any sign they would want to follow the UK out of the European Union.

Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, Salvini, has made overtures to Farage to join a new group in the European Parliament, of which the Italian appears to be the informal leader. The group includes Salvini’s ally in France, Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party also topped domestic polls, narrowly defeating French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance group.


A number of smaller far-right parties across Europe support Salvini’s bloc, however, most did not perform well in the elections. Geert Wilder’s anti-Islam Freedom Party in the Netherlands, for one, lost all of its seats.

Divergent aims

Currently, there are eight political groupings that MEPs can join in the European Parliament, according to their domestic parties’ ideological affiliation. They will have to declare which bloc they are joining by June 24.

“Of course, I think when it comes to blocking policy or trying to obstruct policy, clearly, Salvini might turn to Nigel Farage for support,” Georgina Wright, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government in London, told Al Jazeera.

“But ultimately, they don’t have the same aims, so it’s unclear at this point how much they are going to cooperate. Traditionally, Farage and his colleagues have rarely taken an interest in the works of the EU. They weren’t really active in the committees, they didn’t hold any of the important roles,” she said, adding that it remains to be seen “how invested they [Farage et al] are in the European Parliament”.

In the UK, the Brexit party campaigned on one single issue – taking the country out of the EU. The six-week-old party managed to sweep up the ruling Conservative Party’s “Leave” voters, leading to the worst result in decades for Britain’s governing party.

“If the Brexit Party joins Mr Salvini’s group, [it] will be above 100 seats, which will make it something not neglectable in the arithmetics of the European Parliament,” said Doru Frantescu, CEO of Brussels-based think-tank Votewatch Europe.

“[However], the League is much more oriented towards playing the European game. Of course, they have positioned themselves against some of the decisions made by the EU, but unlike Mr Farage, they do not want to undermine the EU and the institution of the European Parliament per se,” Frantescu told Al Jazeera.

Those differences also stem from the fact that while the League is a governing party in Italy, the Brexit Party has no seats in the British parliament at all, she added.

“Mr Salvini wants his party to influence European policy, and he wants to be able to show his voters back home in Italy that he’s not isolated,” Frantescu said.

Traditionally, Farage and his colleagues have rarely taken an interest in the works of the EU. They weren't really active in the committees, they didn't hold any of the important roles

by Georgina Wright, Institute for Government

This year’s European elections produced the most fragmented parliament so far, with the centre-right and centre-left groups, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), losing more than 30 seats each – as well as, crucially, their combined majority.

In the UK, the elections were used as a proxy referendum on Brexit, and the parties who made the clearest declarations on EU withdrawal scored the largest wins.

The Brexit party wants the UK to leave the EU by the new deadline of October 31, with or without a withdrawal deal.

The Liberal Democrats, who campaigned on the slogan “B*ll*cks to Brexit”, came second with nearly 20 percent of the vote and 16 seats. They are part of the centrist, liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, which gained the most new seats in the legislature by teaming up with Macron’s reformist Renaissance group.

The ALDE is now the third-largest group and is largely seen as kingmakers; their support indispensable for any coalition due to their strategic positioning.

“The Lib Dems are sending quite a big number of MEPs to the European Parliament,” said Wright of the Institute for Government.

“That really increases ALDE’s number of seats and its influence over who could get the EU’s top jobs. So, I think in that respect there is a significance of British MEPs being in the European Parliament, but [their presence] is actually more significant for pro-EU MEPs than it is for those who are anti-EU,” Wright added.

Outside the UK and Ireland, Brexit was barely an issue that voters had on their mind

by Georgina Wright, Institute for Government

When and if Brexit takes place, all of the UK’s 73 MEPs will leave the 751-seat parliament. Forty-six of the seats previously held by the UK will be kept “on reserve” for possible future EU enlargement, while 27 will be shared out among 14 under-represented countries.

According to Frantescu, the UK’s departure would move the European Parliament’s “centre of gravity” towards the left of the political spectrum.

“Both of the main British delegations – the Brexit Party and Lib Dems – if there is one thing they agree on it is that they don’t fancy stronger regulation of the internal market of the European Union,” Frantescu said.

“Both of them are non-interventionist. If the British leave, there will be more than 40 MEPs who are pro-free market who will be lost.”

Meanwhile, for as long as the UK remains in the EU, it appears set to fight its own, lonely battle.

“I think outside the UK and Ireland, Brexit was barely an issue that voters had on their mind,” said Georgina Wright.

“A more fragmented EU parliament shows there is more polarisation, and I think that makes for a more healthy debate. But it will also make EU reform much more difficult,” Wright added. “There are going to be lots of challenges ahead for the EU and I’m not sure where Brexit sits in that list of priorities.”

Source: Al Jazeera