Brexit wrangles intrude on EU job allocation

Just take a moment to look at the sudden rise of the UK’s Brexit party from a continental European perspective. Some EU politicians are basking in the illusion that the British are beginning to have second thoughts about leaving. What message would a victory in this week’s European elections for Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence party and now at the helm of this new protest party, send? More importantly, how would it affect the views among EU leaders in the European Council?

Brexit is not on their agenda now. But it might force its way back, and sooner than they would like. This could start with the EU’s top priority: to fill an unusually large number of jobs that become vacant this autumn, including the presidencies of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Central Bank, and the role of EU foreign policy chief.

A fragmented European Parliament might be split on whom it supports for the presidency of the European Commission. Manfred Weber, a German, is the official candidate of the European People’s party, the main centre-right group in the parliament. He is not so popular among MEPs outside his group because of his previous support for Viktor Orban, Hungary’s nationalist leader. But if the EPP ends up with the largest number of seats, and if MEPs were to reject Mr Weber, they would also relinquish a privilege they had fought for in a power battle five years ago: the presumption that the candidate of the largest group automatically becomes commission president, the so-called spitzenkandidat process.

In a meeting next week, EU leaders hope to reach an early agreement on the vacant jobs. But they will struggle to come up with any combination that ticks all the boxes: respecting the outcome of the elections, the need to represent both north and south, east and west. Gender balance will also play a much bigger role this time.

While Brussels cares mostly about the political jobs, I assume most Financial Times readers — myself included — think the ECB presidency is the most important of the four. It was Mario Draghi who saved the eurozone, not Donald Tusk or Jean-Claude Juncker, nor their predecessors as presidents of the European Council and the commission. It would be irresponsible — though not out of character — for EU leaders to allocate the ECB job as an afterthought, to fit in neatly with the other, supposedly more critical choices.

It is also possible that they may simply not agree on any of the new personnel. Or that the new European Parliament rejects their choice for the commission presidency. In that case, the whole nomination procedure would drag on beyond the summer break — and intrude directly into the Brexit discussions in the autumn. This would complicate matters. The candidates for the commission job have different views on Brexit. Mr Weber wants the UK to leave as soon as possible (none of the UK’s 73 MEPs will be a member of the EPP). Michel Barnier, the Brexit negotiator, would want to see his negotiated withdrawal agreement implemented.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of a meeting of the European Council in October with so much uncertainty around. We cannot take it for granted that the European Council’s unity over Brexit will hold up under any foreseeable accidents. What if the new UK MEPs were to tip the balance in the vote on the commission presidency or some other important vote?

Another uncertainty concerns Theresa May’s successor. The UK prime minister could now leave office without having secured Brexit. She would most likely be replaced by a Brexit hardliner. So what if Boris Johnson, for example, threw his weight around in the European Council? At the very least I would expect the other EU leaders to have a serious debate on how to move forward.

I doubt that anyone will formally veto a further extension to the October 31 Brexit deadline. But I would not rule out a sufficiently large minority of member states inclining against. Views have been shifting. Mr Farage topping the poll this week might nudge them further. The EU’s fear of friction remains the optimists’ best hope. The EU can be notoriously indecisive — this is why they never resolved the eurozone crisis.

But then, consider the viewpoint of Emmanuel Macron. If you care about reform of the EU as strongly as the French president does, why would you want to prolong Brexit uncertainty? The risk of a sudden UK exit is balanced by the risk of Brexit impeding Mr Macron’s agenda and the EU’s other business.

At this stage the outcome of a hypothetical decision to extend Brexit is wide-open. This uncertainty should inform the choices of MPs in the UK in June when they vote on the withdrawal agreement for a fourth and final time. Beware of unintended consequences.

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