The silver lining to the Brexit cloud

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Now David Cameron is out of the picture, Jean-Claude Juncker should use the state of the union speech to encourage the Parliament to seize its moment. [European Commission]

After a fairly restless summer, the mood on Brexit has shifted in Brussels. Initial disbelief that the UK could have voted to leave is now replaced by acceptance that, “Brexit means Brexit”, writes Andrew Duff.

Andrew Duff was an MEP for the UK’s Liberal Democrats from 1999 to 2014 and a prominent member of the Constitutional Affairs committee in the European Parliament. He is a prominent voice within the European Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) family.

The appointment of Didier Seeuws for the Council and Michel Barnier for the Commission to lead the Brexit talks from the EU side has injected a sense of reality into the situation.

The negotiations will only start after the British prime minister invokes Article 50 and after two years of negotiations there will be a withdrawal agreement that deals with copious legacy issues, such as catering for the acquired rights of displaced EU citizens and the disentanglement of the EU budget.

The withdrawal agreement will not be nice because it will be an agreement to disagree. Each of the 28 states, not least the UK, will have vested interests to defend; and the remaining EU has a vital interest in retaining collective unity, a unity that will be put to the test within the European Council, the Commission and the European Parliament (which has got to approve the end product).

If the negotiations go well, the deal will point the way, and even build a bridge towards a long term settlement of the UK’s relations with the EU of 27 member states, but the details of any formal trading or political relationship will be the subject of a later negotiation under a different legal base.

The leaders of the EU 27 will have a first chance to sit down together at a special summit meeting in Bratislava on 16 September. They will be offered the chance of agreeing on some general guidelines for the conduct of the Article 50 exercise. Several of them will take the chance to lay down some red lines. So much is clear.

Even though the outline of the issues to be covered in the Article 50 agreement is fairly straightforward, the complexity of some of those issues should not be underestimated. A question that will emerge quite soon is the impact of the secession of a member state, and a large one at that, on the EU institutions.

Having just settled down after more than a decade of enlargement the institutions now have to reverse the process. Thanks to the Lisbon treaty, the impact of Brexit on the Council will be minimal: the voting formulae for qualified majorities will be automatically adjusted.

As there are so few Britons working nowadays in the administrations of the Council and Commission (about 3% of personnel only), they will hardly be missed on departure, at least in quantitative terms. At the Court of Justice transitional measures will be needed to avoid the disruption of litigation in course.

The most dramatic effect will be felt in the European Parliament where 73 British out of a total of 751 MEPs will up-sticks come the vesting day of the Article 50 agreement. Of those 73, 45 are right-wing, so the political balance of the Parliament will shift marginally away from euroscepticism to favour the centre-left. The European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR) – created in 2009 by David Cameron’s decision to withdraw the British Tories from the European People’s Party (EPP) – will lose 21 of their MEPs and fall from third to fourth place in the hierarchy, behind the Liberals (ALDE).

The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group (EFDD) – led by Nigel Farage – will disappear altogether on the departure of UKIP because it will fail to meet Parliament’s minimum threshold for the establishment of a group (that is, 25 MEPs from a quarter of member states). A subsequent realignment of forces on the right of the House might then work to the benefit of Marine Le Pen’s Europe of Nations group.

Brexit notwithstanding, the Parliament is in any case obliged to make two proposals to the Council as to its composition after the next elections in May 2019. The first concerns the apportionment of seats between the member states (Article 14(2) TEU); the second the reform of the electoral procedure (Article 223(1) TFEU).

Last November, it voted to support the introduction of a pan-European constituency for which an unspecified number of MEPs will be elected from transnational party lists. The purpose of the reform is to consolidate the Spitzenkandidat experiment first tried in 2014 for the election of the Commission President.

This is a big boost for the EU-level political parties that will be selecting champions to head their lists in the election campaign, competing for the attention of the EU wide media and the votes of the EU wide electorate. The battle for power at the EU level will transform the hitherto rather underwhelming European parliamentary elections, and serve to increase turnout.

Citizens will be pleasantly surprised to find they have two votes, one for their normal national or regional constituency, the other for the all-new EU wide seat. Federalists are right to see this reform as the key to enhancing the democratic legitimacy of the Parliament.

In the past, agreement within the Parliament has proved difficult to achieve on the detail of the pan-European scheme for two main reasons. First, all but one or two of the British MEPs have always opposed the transnational scheme. Second, the middling-size countries, at present over-represented in terms of seats, feared a cut in their allocation of MEPs if the transnational element were to be sliced off the national quota of 751.

Today, lo and behold, Brexit provides an unintended solution to both of those problems. Europe’s first transnational electoral lists in 2019 can be 73 seats long and no state will lose a current seat.

In June 2014, largely in order to placate David Cameron the European Council also committed itself to a review of the Spitzenkandidat system. With Cameron now in disgrace, few of his former colleagues will dare to try to overthrow the leading role of the European Parliament in the choice of Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor. Indeed, they would be wise to try to authenticate Parliament’s role through the vehicle of stronger political parties at the federal level and a more legitimate and attractive electoral process.

So it’s now up to the Parliament to seize its moment. President Juncker should encourage MEPs in this direction when he makes his state of the union speech in Strasbourg on 14 September.

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