How the Brexit Extension Could Scramble British and European Political Party Fortunes
The latest Brexit deadline extension seems likely to prolong Britain's nervous breakdown over its association with the European Union until October 31. But deferral could also lead to a significant and more immediate change in the political makeup of Europe itself. That is because, as EU and UK leaders agreed, Britain will participate in European parliamentary elections in May, potentially making the UK Labour Party the biggest party in the new parliament, and strengthening the center left against rightist nationalist parties. This makeup could even tip the selection process for the next president of the European Commission.
The situation is admittedly murky. Having assumed last year that Britain would not participate in the elections, the European Parliament adjusted the distribution of parliamentary seats, reducing the total from 751 to 705. That adjustment is now out the window. Britain will elect 73 new members of the European Parliament (MEPs) after all. The adjustment reversal also means that for instance Spain and France will lose the five new MEPs they were to have been allocated, while Italy and the Netherlands lose three each.
It is unclear what will happen to the composition of the European Parliament if the United Kingdom eventually leaves the European Union before the next European elections in 2024. Another reallocation might take place in that event, or the European Parliament could decide to sit with fewer members.
Some UK opinion polls imply that the Labour Party will win big in the European elections, with 38 percent of the vote compared to 23 percent for the Conservative Party.1 Such a vote would translate into 28 MEPs, making Labour potentially the European Parliament's largest party, on par with Germany's Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and Italy's League party. Other polls, however, have Labour as low as 24 percent and the Conservatives at a historically low 16 percent.
In turn, a big win for Labour in the United Kingdom would strengthen the center-left democratic socialist group in which Labour participates, hypothetically making it the largest parliamentary coalition. It is unclear which political family will lose most from the 14 member states losing their additional 27 allocated seats, but the UK showing in these elections could boost the chances that Frans Timmermans, the Socialist and Democratic candidate, becomes the next president of the European Commission.
In this new mix, the rightist European People's Party (EPP) will likely have to rely on Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party to fend off the center-left challenge to become the biggest political family in the newly elected parliament and claim credit for the accompanying political boost to their candidate for the next European Commission president, Manfred Weber. He therefore cannot afford to let Orban be expelled from the party, as previously threatened because of his autocratic rule.2 Orban, a skilled political opportunist, is certain to exploit this political situation. An unfortunate side effect of the United Kingdom participating in the European elections will be to further undermine the rule of law in Hungary, not to mention the democratic principles that used to underpin the EPP.
A newly elected European Parliament with British lawmakers could also help the domestic political breakthrough for new British parties—the Brexit Party on the nationalist right and Change UK in the political center.3 These groups would gain valuable media exposure and credibility, boosting their chances in any upcoming UK national elections, even if the first-past-the-post electoral system generally works against new small parties and would keep their numbers down in Westminster. Letting the United Kingdom participate in the European elections in 2019 will therefore likely help further undermine the increasingly discredited UK two-party political system.
1. These numbers represent a dramatic deterioration for the conservative Tories from earlier polling in late February that had them much closer, at 36 percent to Labour's 37 percent. See How Britain would vote in the European election.
2. Freedom House ranked Hungary as only partly free in 2019.
3. This is especially a possibility with the European elections coming soon after the UK local elections on May 4, in which the new parties might also expect to win far more seats than in national elections.