March 15, 2019
The rising significance of the European elections for Brexit
Yesterday was an important day in the Brexit saga, but not because of the shenanigans in the UK parliament. The big news is that there will be a third meaningful vote on Tuesday, but with the added twist that Theresa May is explicitly using the European elections as a weapon - possibly her most potent one yet. A long delay including European elections would be a nightmare for the Tory eurosceptics, and a boon to the new Brexit party. It is also a nightmare for the EU. It falls into the "be careful what you wish for" category.
There were more concrete signs that the DUP and some Brexiters are shifting their position. The purpose of MV3 is to maximise support on the Tory/DUP side. If that is not enough, and it probably won't, then there could be a cliff-edge MV4 in the last week of March, at which point some Labour MPs might support May. Her deal remains, in our view, the most likely exit route for the UK, followed by a compromise proposal along the lines of the single market. If there is one thing yesterday's amendment has told us, it is that there is no majority for a second referendum. But we knew that already. And we are also fast losing interest in timetabling motions and other parliamentary shenanigans. The course of Brexit will not depend on them.
Is the threat to hold European election for real? Eleanor Sharpston (@akulith), the UK's advocate-general at the ECJ, suggested that it was legally no problem to deprive UK citizens and EU citizens living in the UK from voting in the EP elections in case of a long extension. We noted that Jean-Claude Piris disagreed. More important for us would be the politics of depriving millions of a vote, especially EU citizens who had no say in the Brexit decision. The EU would in a single stroke delegitimise two institutions: the EP itself, and the European Commission which has to be confirmed by the EP.
Donald Tusk, too, dangled a long extension with the ease of a man who will not have to clean up the mess. We suspect the members of the European Council will be a little less gung-ho about this when they consider the consequences of the UK participating in the elections. No matter what the election outcome will be, the UK will not dispatch MEPs who will support Manfred Weber for the Commission presidency. And do the other leaders really want Brexit to dominate their own election campaign? It would be a gift to all populist parties on the continent. And it will give us another five years of Nigel Farage in Brussels.
Another sign that the EU has not fully thought this through is the lazy suggestion that the UK could be asked to refrain from participating in EU decisions during a long extension period. You don't have to be an expert in EU law to know that Treaty rights supersed handshake deals. In its Brexit revocation ruling, the ECJ made it absolutely clear that the UK remains a full member until the moment it is not.
The threat of holding European elections is probably May's most important weapon in the days ahead.