The uncertainty created by the Brexit referendum has left members of the European Parliament deeply divided over the future role their British colleagues should play. But most agree that Nigel Farage should go. EurActiv France reports.
What should become of the British MEPs? Even within the Parliament, the question is not easily answered. Uncertainty reigns, and opinion is divided.
MEPs took a hard line on the conditions of the UK’s exit from the EU following the referendum, but the delay in activating Article 50 – which will not happen until September at the earliest and probably not until 2017 – has sown confusion. Will they stay or will they go? And in the meantime, how should their elected representatives be treated?
Since 23 June, the official position of Europe’s leaders has been unwavering. “There is no other option but to invoke Article 50,” said Manfred Weber, the leader of the European Parliament’s EPP group.
“The EU is ready to proceed with an amicable divorce with the UK even today. But we cannot force the United Kingdom to take this decision,” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said in a debate in the hemicycle.
The legal procedure to start Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union will not be triggered at this week’s European summit in Brussels because of the “significant political crisis” there, a senior EU official has said.
As the British paralysis spreads through the European institutions, the mood among pro-European MEPs is turning to one of annoyance. “If we want the negotiations with the UK to be quick, we can’t wait for the Conservatives to choose their new prime minister,” said Guy Verhofstad, the leader of the European Parliament’s liberal ALDE group.
EXCLUSIVE / Britain’s ruling Conservative party is planning to hold fresh general elections in November, to secure a popular mandate for a new Brexit government.
UK and EU paralysis
But the question is far from resolved in the European Parliament. And the debate broadly follows party lines. Some can’t wait to see the back of the British MEPs, while others are fighting to retain the status quo for as long as possible.
The lack of legal clarity over the fate of the British MEPs is causing problems, and no politician seems prepared to go out on a limb by taking a political position. The legislature’s decision on the subject has been put back to the September Conference of the Presidents, and Martin Schulz has yet to publically take sides.
Weber said it was important to remember that the British members “still had all their rights in the European Parliament”.
European President Martin Schulz told MEPs to brace for an extraordinary plenary session on Tuesday (28 June), while a meeting of the College of Commissioners would take place on Sunday (26 June) if Britons vote to leave the EU.
But even within political groups, divisions are deep.
“Could we accept a situation whereby a European law is adopted thanks to votes from a country that is leaving the Union?” asked Alain Lamassoure, the head of the French EPP delegation in the Parliament.
For others, the future of their British colleagues should depend on the position they adopted during the referendum campaign. “The British MEPs are full members until the Article 50 procedure has been completed. But that does not mean we will not put pressure on some of them, like Nigel Farage,” a French source said.
Others have proposed to ask the UK members to vote only in accordance with their political group, so as not to change the balance of power in the institution. Or not to vote at all.
“But nobody can agree on this question, neither inside nor outside of the Parliament, inside the political groups or even within the national delegations,” an MEP told EurActiv.
While everyone has their two cents-worth to add to the discussion, the only solution anyone seems able to offer is to wait and see. “I think the Parliament will need a bit more time to absorb the consequences of what has happened,” said Rebecca Harms, a German MEP and co-chair of the Greens/EFA group.
“Everyone is dazed by Brexit, so we are all just waiting,” said Lamassoure.
Some have even begun to doubt that Brexit will happen at all.
“Today I am not at all sure that the United Kingdom will leave the EU. But if they don’t go, it would be the end of the European project,” warned José Bové, a French Green MEP.
Legally possible, politically incorrect
For Britain not to leave the EU “is legally possible, but politically incorrect,” said Jean-Paul Denanot, a French Socialist MEP.
“I was for a Bremain, but I don’t see how we can change the vote. It is not our job to change the result of the British referendum, but if they realise they have made a huge mistake, they should own up to it,” said Gianni Pitella, the leader of the Socialists & Democrats group. “There is nothing worse than persevering with a bad decision.”
The UK’s House of Lords has been warned that Britain will be made an example of by the European Union, if it votes to quit the bloc in the upcoming referendum.
Even the British MEPs seem unsure of their position. “The British members must now decide on their reaction to the referendum,” said Syed Kamal, the leader of the Parliament’s conservative ECR group and a campaigner for Brexit.
Hanging the Brexiteers out to dry
The one point everyone can agree on is that Nigel Farage, the former leader of UKIP and the European Parliament’s anti-EU EFDD group, should give up his seat in the institution at the earliest opportunity.
The populist leader, a flagbearer for the Leave campaign, has announced his resignation as leader of UKIP, but said he intends to stay in the European Parliament and to lead the anti-EU EFDD group until the end of his mandate in 2018.
“I am surprised that Nigel Farage has stood down as UKIP leader but plans to stay on as the leader of his group in the Parliament,” said Weber.
Verhofstad said, “Nigel Farage wants to have more time for himself, to spend his European salary.”
Jean-Claude Juncker sparred with Nigel Farage this morning, calling the UKIP leader a liar and insisting he not return to the European Parliament.
Absent from the hemicycle for the whole of Wednesday’s session (6 July), Farage held a press conference in which he stated that he would finish his mandate so he could closely follow the activation of Article 50.