Nigel Farage is the least of the European Parliament’s worries.
The head of the newly formed Brexit Party is just one of 73 British MEPs who will descend on Strasbourg and Brussels unless their government manages to push a last-minute Brexit compromise through the House of Commons.
While Farage’s Brexit Party is likely to make up one of the U.K.’s largest delegations, a big bloc of British Euroskeptics is nothing the Parliament hasn’t seen before.
More worrying is the fact that the British are turning up at all.
To start with, the U.K.’s participation in May’s European Parliament election derails a plan to resize — and rebalance — the institution in the wake of Britain’s departure.
In February 2018, the Parliament agreed to cut the number of MEPs from 751 to 705, and to allocate the 27 seats that had been the U.K.’s to 14 “under-represented” member states.
Now, those plans are on hold. European Parliament officials are leaving it to each of the 14 countries to decide how they handle the curveball. Some are expected to elect all their would-be MEPs in May and then wait until the U.K. leaves for them to take their seats. Others could hold mini-elections only when — and if — the U.K finally leaves.
“It will make from this Parliament … a real pigeon house, a dovecote,” Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian head of the institution’s liberal bloc, said last week. “With British members flying in and out, and members of at least 14 other countries waiting on the substitute benches.
“Banksy … already painted Westminster as a house full of monkeys,” he added. “He could be inspired to paint this blue hemicycle here in Strasbourg filled with pigeons.”
Potentially more disruptive is the temporary status of the incoming Brits, which could upset the delicate balance of power between Parliament’s major political groups.
The Parliament spends the first months of its terms forming the coalitions that will confirm the new slate of European commissioners, including the Commission president, in the fall. They also select the powerful rapporteurs and committee chairs that will drive the policy discussions for the next five years.
With Brexit delayed until Halloween, the U.K.’s MEPs will be part of the Parliament exactly at this critical time.
“British MEPs will have to be included in the whole game of thrones,” said Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think tank. “These elections, irrespective of the result they will bring, will bring a certain chaos in the internal working of the European Parliament.”
Britain’s Labour Party is expected to take 20 seats, according to projections by POLITICO, adding to the heft of Parliament’s Socialist bloc, the institution’s second-largest group after the conservative European People’s Party (EPP).
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party — expected to take 12 seats — was once part of the EPP but now sits in the European Conservatives and Reformists alongside Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party.
Its presence in the chamber — along with the Brexit Party’s projected 12 MEPs and its rival UKIP’s nine seats — could complicate efforts by Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini to unify the Parliament’s Euroskeptics.
For the Parliament’s power brokers, the British presence — and the uncertainty about whether the U.K. will ever leave at all — sets up a dilemma.
Do they include the British presence in the negotiations over committee heads and the top jobs in the European Commission — essentially allowing the U.K. to have a say in the coming years of Brussels policymaking?
Or do they negotiate under the assumption that the British MEPs will be gone by the end of the month? Then what happens if the U.K. decides to revoke Article 50, cancelling Brexit? Will the MEPs from one of the EU’s largest countries be expected to sit out from committee chairs and rapporteur positions for the next five years?
“It is putting the individual political groups in a very difficult position,” said Gostyńska-Jakubowska, “because it is difficult for them to think strategically, long-term.”
In the end, Parliament may have no choice but to deal out the cards with the expectation that they will be reshuffled once the U.K. leaves.
“There is no concept of temporary MEPs in the European Parliament,” said a Parliament official. “The U.K. retains all its rights, privileges, duties and obligations and the same applies to its MEPs, up until the day it leaves.”
Under Parliament’s rules of procedure (rule 199, to be exact), if an MEP’s “change of political group has the effect of disturbing the fair representation of political views in a committee, new proposals for the composition of that committee are made by the Conference of Presidents.”
This is the procedure that will apply if and when British MEPs leave. So for example, if the U.K. dumps a large bloc of Brexit Party Euroskeptics on the Parliament, but then the gang of 27 MEPs replacing the Brits is dominated by federalists, the personnel on some committees — perhaps even the chairmanships — may have to change hands mid-term.
The Parliament’s game of musical chairs will be even messier than expected.