How Brexit Could Spill Over Into EU Elections

(Bloomberg) -- Nationalists from Italy to Hungary are preparing for battle in European Union elections later this year, seeking allies for a united Euroskeptic front against what they call the cosy liberal elite. Now the chaos of Brexit may end up providing them with an army they probably didn’t expect.

With divorce from the EU scheduled for March 29, the U.K. wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with elections to the European Parliament two months later. But with politicians in London at an impasse, it looks more likely that Brexit will be delayed and officials in Brussels reckon disgruntled British voters would elect scores of anti-EU legislators given the chance.

Brexit has dominated Britain for the past two years, though it’s played out to a backdrop of rising nativism and protectionism across Europe that’s left the EU riven with division over the continent’s future.

How Brexit Could Spill Over Into EU Elections

“We are going to have elections in May, which I would say are delicate, if not dangerous, because we have the rise of populists in Europe,” EU Economy Commissioner Pierre Moscovici told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Italy’s deputy prime minister and nationalist-in-chief, Matteo Salvini, has called the May 23-26 European Parliament ballot “the battle of all battles.” On a visit to Poland this month, he promised a “new European spring.” French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, declared in November that nationalism is a “betrayal” of European values.

Mainstream politicians are now faced with the European Parliament potentially emerging with a big enough antagonistic faction to do some damage, something being championed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon. All 705 seats in the assembly are up for grabs, though the U.K. is supposed to be abandoning its 73.

Tricky Timing

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May hasn’t ruled out asking for the postponement of the country’s departure as the British Parliament continues to oppose the Brexit deal struck with the EU. Any request would have to be approved by all 27 remaining EU governments and some are reluctant.

How Brexit Could Spill Over Into EU Elections

Most think a delay until the start of July would be manageable and wouldn’t need the U.K. to take part in the European elections because the new parliament wouldn’t sit until then. Anything beyond that would be tricky. While EU law requires any country that’s a member to organize elections, a share of the U.K. seats has already been reallocated.

In Brussels, legal minds are wracking their brains about possible workarounds, although some countries believe it would be wrong to deny the British electorate a say.

One of the biggest worries for the EU about allowing the U.K. to take part is that European lawmakers hold a veto over the appointment of the next president of the European Commission. An influential decision-maker, incumbent Jean-Claude Juncker is due to step down later this year.

The last thing the EU needs is Nigel Farage, a leading Brexit campaigner and European Parliament member since 1999, “sitting in judgment” over the appointment of the new commission, a senior diplomat involved in the Brexit talks said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity.

Farage said he’s already preparing for an election campaign should May request a lengthy Brexit postponement.

European diplomats fear a grumpy British electorate -- still in the EU and nearly three years after voting to leave in a referendum -- would send to Brussels “73 Nigel Farages,” according to another EU official.

The issue is far deeper than just being about Britain. For the first time, there’s a real possibility anti-EU parties could win enough seats in the European Parliament to disrupt legislative business rather than just rail against it. Nationalist groups oppose much of the EU’s immigration policies and Italy, Poland and Hungary have all had their standoffs with Brussels.

While French President Macron’s vision, backed by Germany, is for closer allegiance on such things as defense and national finances, Italy’s Salvini, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and their allies want more divergence.

Crucially, the European Parliament has the right to reject the Brexit deal if and when it gets approved by the British legislature. There’s little indication it will do that under its current formation, though things could be different with a new group of lawmakers keen to make trouble.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.