A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Brexit Tectonics


The United Kingdom’s departure from the EU is the greatest political success for opponents of European integration. Paradoxically, however, Brexit is forcing EU-skeptical parties to restructure.

© REUTERS/Simon Dawson

March 29, 2019 is the date when the United Kingdom will, according to all expectations, become to first country to ever leave the European Union. That’s just eight weeks before citizens in the remaining 27 EU member-states will be called to the polls to elect the next European Parliament.

With Brexit negotiations hitting the wall and political paralysis reigning in London, it is still completely unclear how Brexit will unfold. Even an extension of negotiations beyond the envisaged exit date cannot be ruled out. However, whether it ends up being a “hard Brexit,” “soft Brexit,” or a “no deal,” the UK’s political representatives, including the 73 British members of the European Parliament, will have to leave the EU institutions as soon as Britain withdraws from the EU. This also applies for the transition period—should one be agreed—during which the UK, according to the draft withdrawal agreement, will continue to be bound by EU rules but will no longer be represented in the EU institutions. That won’t just mean the departure of Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). It will also have a noticeable impact on the balance of power in the Strasbourg parliament.

The EPP as Winner

Among the major parties, the European People’s Party (EPP), home to the German Christian Democrats, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, is set to benefit the most from Brexit. Since the British Conservatives left the EPP in 2009, Europe’s largest party has had no partner in the United Kingdom. As every other parliamentary group is set to lose MEPs, the EPP’s weight will increase in relative terms. In contrast, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will lose the British Labour Party. Labour has not only 20 MEPs, but also reached 40 percent of the votes in the last UK elections—while Social Democratic Parties slumped in Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. The S&D are thus set to lose one of their biggest members. The expected losses for the liberal ALDE group, the European Greens, and the European left will be significantly smaller.

This matters for the balance of power in the European Parliament. Combined with the expected losses of the social democratic parties in most of continental Europe, Brexit is expected to further strengthen and secure the EPP’s prospects of remaining the largest group in Strasbourg. These shifts will also have an effect on the Spitzenkandidat or “lead candidate” system. In 2014, the battle for the position as the largest parliamentary group was still considered an open race. Then, Martin Schulz, S&D’s leading candidate, could see himself as having a chance of becoming President of the Commission. But after 2019, majority building in the European Parliament will probably only be possible with the EPP. The EPP’s Spitzenkandidat will have, therefore, the best chance of becoming the President of the European Commission.

A Bad Deal for EU-Skeptics

The impact on the EU-skeptic groups will be even more significant. Due to their gains in the 2014 elections, EU critical parties have, overall, picked up nearly 20 percent of the seats in the EP. Nevertheless, they are divided across three political groups, and British Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) play an important role in each of these. The (so-far) moderately EU-skeptic grouping of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) is supported by two main national groups, the British Conservative Party and the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS), which together account for 37 of the 73 ECR MEPs. Given Britain’s departure, the EP will lose the EU-skeptic MEPs who have at times been the most constructive. Even after Brexit the ECR, which is comprised of parties from 17 member-states, will have enough members to continue as a political group. However, its identity will be much more Central/Eastern-European, as 31 of the 54 remaining ECR MEPs will come from this region.

On the other hand, the “Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy” (EFDD), a fundamentally EU-skeptical group, is on the brink of collapse. From the start, this group has been a partnership of convenience between UKIP and the Italian Five Star Movement. While Brexit will see UKIP leave the European Parliament, the Five Star Movement has (at least rhetorically) scaled back on its criticism of the EU. For example, it voted for the Article 7 sanction procedure against Viktor Orban’s Hungarian government. It is thus likely to leave the EFFD, which will find it difficult to survive Brexit. The EFDD’s smaller members will therefore have to reorient themselves, either to the ECR or the ENF. The Swedish Democrats, for example, already left the EFDD in July for the ECR. This also affects the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), whose sole remaining MEP (of an original seven) sits with the EFDD. After the next elections, however, the AfD hopes for a significant number of MEPs, who thus may have a strong influence on the shape of the EU-skeptic groups in the EP. The EFDD’s time is certainly coming to an end.

The also fundamentally EU-skeptical group “Europe of Nations and Freedom” (ENF) is not home to any British party, though it still relies on individual British members to maintain its status as a political group. However, given expected gains for example for the Italian Lega, the ENF is likely to be able to form again after the 2019 elections.

Put simply, the EU-skeptic spectrum will have to rearrange itself after Brexit and the 2019 European elections. There are two basic scenarios for this: The first is a continued division into a national conservative ECR group with a strong central and eastern European influence on the one hand and a deeply right-wing, populist, fundamentally EU-skeptic ENF on the other. In this scenario, both groups would continue to struggle for the allegiance of national parties and thereby the dominance of the EU-skeptic camp. The second scenario is a collective EU-skeptic group that could reach from Hungary’s Fidesz (currently EPP), to the ECR parties, the EFDD and the ENF. A collective parliamentary group such as the one envisaged by Lega leader Matteo Salvini and supported by Donald Trump’s former advisor Stephen Bannon would have the potential to become the second largest parliamentary group in the EP after the 2019 elections.

A Shift Toward the Eurozone

However, shifts take place not only between political parties but also between member states. Already in the summer of 2018, the EU institutions decided how to deal with the 73 soon-to-be-vacant seats after Brexit. 27 of them will be divided up among 14 underrepresented member states in order to address imbalances in parliamentary representation.

The European Parliament will still become noticeably smaller for the first time, shrinking from 751 to 705 MEPs. France, for example, will get five additional MEPs, and Ireland two. Germany, however, will receive no additional representatives, as it is already at the upper limit of 96 set by the EU treaties.

The redistribution is based on shifts in the population sizes of the member states, but will also have a political effect. As a result of the withdrawal of the largest non-euro country, 85 percent of the EU economy will be concentrated in eurozone member states.  At the same time, 22 of the 27 redistributed seats are going to eurozone members. As a result, the share of MEPs coming from the eurozone will increase from 65 to 72 percent. The “South” in particular will benefit, i.e. the eurozone countries France, Italy, and Spain.

The 46 remaining British seats will initially be removed,  according to the principle “a smaller EU, a smaller parliament”. They will not only serve as a reserve for future EU enlargements but could also be used to introduce transnational lists for the European Parliament. This idea, promoted in particular by French President Emmanuel Macron, foresees using those 46 seats for a Europe-wide constituency in which European parties would directly compete for votes. Its proponents were unable to implement it for the elections in 2019, mostly because of opposition by the EPP. It is possible that such lists will be introduced for the next elections in 2024, seeing as Macron and Angela Merkel among others are calling for it.

The Risk of Extension

With less than six months to go before Britain’s planned withdrawal, Brexit negotiations continue to be characterised by maximum uncertainty. As of late October 2018, departure without an agreement, a rejection of the negotiation result in the British House of Commons as well as new elections are all still in the realm of the conceivable. Notably, Article 50 allows the EU-27 and the UK to unanimously agree to extend negotiations. This is currently not the wish of either side, but cannot be ruled out in view of the political crisis in London.

Should such a scenario come to pass, it would have considerable consequences for the European elections. If the Article 50 negotiations were extended, the UK would continue to be a member of the EU until the next deadline, with all the rights and obligations. This includes the retention of the 73 seats in the EP and would therefore require the UK to partake in the elections in May 2019.  According to the relevant texts, the EU would have to temporarily suspend the redistribution of seats.

From Brussels’ perspective, holding European elections in a country as it departs would be quite uncomfortable. The consequences for Britain, however, would be even more serious. Given the tense domestic political situation, European elections would almost inevitably become a sort of second referendum on Brexit. They would breathe new life into parties such as UKIP. Brexit advocates would attack the extension itself as a betrayal of the 2016 referendum, and Brexit opponents would beat the drum  at the prospects for staying in the EU. This would be an explosive combination—though it is, at this moment in time, only a fringe scenario.

A Historic Rupture

Finally, it is important not to underestimate the psychologic effect Britain’s likely departure will have on the European elections. The current negotiations are mainly focused on the economic and technical aspects of Brexit. At the same time, the clock seems to have stopped for Britain to some extent, as the country has not yet left the Union. Shortly before the European elections, however, the reality of Brexit will become abundantly clear—British representatives will leave every EU institution, Brexiteers will celebrate the consummation of the withdrawal, and the EU will be without its second-largest member-state. All of a sudden, there will be a large western European country on the EU’s doorstep that has opted for an alternative to European integration.

Causing and winning the British referendum to leave the EU is so far the greatest political success of the EU-skeptic movements, and anti-EU parties often hold Britain up as an example. At the same time, however, the difficulties of the Brexit negotiations, the ongoing political crisis in London, and Britain’s painful struggle over its decision are acting as a deterrent to other member-states. Since the Brexit referendum, support for EU membership has grown  across all of Europe. Most EU-skeptic parties seem to have learned from Brexit and Marine Le Pen’s defeat in the French presidential election. They no longer want to question their country’s membership in the EU per se but rather seek to fundamentally transform the EU’s political orientation from liberal democracy to a union of states with authoritarian tendencies that build new and old borders.

Thus, both Brexit itself as well as the forced rearrangement of the EU-skeptic spectrum underlines the importance of the next European elections for the future direction of the EU. At stake here is nothing less than the fundamental orientation of European integration.