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Driving the day - What’s next for the EU?

A way out of the Brexit morass? The Tories face a major setback after the prime minister’s repeated failure to win approval for the withdrawal agreement and the postponement of Brexit. They will struggle to raise funds, agree a manifesto and field candidates.



rexit-bound Britain will participate in this month’s European Parliament (EP) election, unless UK prime minister, Theresa May, and opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, manage to push the thrice-rejected EU withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons in the coming days. They have every incentive to avoid the EP election, which, following the local elections, promises to be a rout for the Tories, a set-back for Labour, a victory for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and a moderate success for the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, Greens and new pro-EU Change UK Party. A “deal” would consist of Corbyn’s accepting the withdrawal agreement in exchange for the prime minister’s undertaking to ask the EU for a commitment to a customs union (CU), as the basis for Britain’s future relations with the EU. The two parties are wrangling with each other and internally over the principle of a CU, whether it should be temporary or permanent and whether the “deal” | 08

the EP election. Neither major party has even begun to campaign while the smaller Leave and Remain parties are rearing to go.

should be endorsed by a referendum. A CU would reduce the need for systematic border controls between the UK and the EU-27, supposedly making the controversial Irish “backstop” unnecessary. If the UK House of Commons quickly approves the withdrawal agreement on this basis, Britain would not participate in the EP elections, sparing both major parties an embarrassing defeat. The UK would leave the EU as soon as the necessary legislation is adopted. Corbyn could claim that the government had adopted his preferred scheme, a CU, even if under another name. Theresa May could give way to a Tory successor, as she has promised, her mission accomplished. But even if Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn stitch up such a deal, they will find it hard to corral enough of their MPs into the division lobby to approve it. Customs union is anathema to many Tories because they think it means “Brexit in name only” and would exclude their dream of beneficial British free trade agreements for goods with countries around the world. Many Labour MPs, seeking a softer Brexit, would question whether Theresa May’s successor, probably an uncompromising Eurosceptic, would stick to any agreement she might have reached with Mr Corbyn. Some Labour parliamentarians would insist on a “confirmatory referendum,” abhorred by Corbyn, a closet Leaver, because of the risk of a popular vote to remain in the EU. Corbyn will wish to avoid the taint of backing a Tory Brexit and may be setting the prime

Sir Michael LEIGH is senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels and senior adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies in Bologna minister up for another failure in prolonging the talks. In any event, customs union, alone, would not be enough to ensure “frictionless” trade between the UK and the EU-27, including Ireland. The UK as a whole would still have to implement EU single market rules to remove the need for veterinary, plant health and other checks on goods transported between the UK and the EU. It is far from certain that the two sides would agree to this. For the EU, cherry picking single market rules, while excluding free movement of workers, has always been a non-starter. For the UK, alignment with single market regulations would make the country a permanent decisiontaker – the opposite of “taking back control.” Nonetheless both sides might be ready to bury their differences and use creative drafting to permit Brexit to go ahead.

But British politicians are not counting on a deal and the smaller parties are preparing to contest the EP elections. In the EP elected five years ago, Labour had 20 of the 73 British seats that were due to be eliminated or re-allocated to other member states before Britain won its latest Brexit extension. Labour forms part of the Socialist group (S&D) in the EP that stands to lose seats in the election. Labour’s ambiguous election manifesto, sidestepping a possible second referendum, would not inspire many of its supporters to come out and vote. The Conservatives also have 20 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), 18 in the largely Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists Group, with 2 belonging to the centreright European Peoples’ Party (EPP – Christian Democrat). The Tories are struggling to raise funds, agree a manifesto and field candidates for

The EPP will lose seats, mainly to illiberal nationalists, but is most likely to remain the largest group in the new EP. With its lacklustre, right-leaning Bavarian lead candidate, Manfred Weber, the EPP will fall short of the previous controlling majority it enjoyed together with the Socialists (S&D). The EPP, S&D, and their allies, will probably have to share power in the new EP with the Liberals who look like forming a new political group together with French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche. The Greens may also be needed to form a majority. This broadening of the main working alignment inside the EP would be healthy in itself. But it will be hard to negotiate and could delay the choice of leaders for the EU’s main institutions. Several heads of government, eying jobs for themselves or their protégés and unimpressed with Weber, will challenge the “lead candidate” arrangement, adopted informally in 2014, whereby the head of the political group receiving the most votes becomes Commission president. Resulting squabbles might mean that caretaker teams are still in office in Brussels at the end of October, when Britain might again face the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit, if the withdrawal agreement is not approved earlier. Across the EU, illiberal nationalist parties will garner additional votes. Nigel Farage’s legions

Profile for Government Gazette

Government Gazette - Vol 1, 2019  

This edition of Government Gazette covers everything about Brexit and the unprecedented uncertainty around European elections. With a new ba...

Government Gazette - Vol 1, 2019  

This edition of Government Gazette covers everything about Brexit and the unprecedented uncertainty around European elections. With a new ba...