BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Brexit paralysis has led to a British election or a second referendum, but an odd side-effect may be the British who must vote for an EU parliament they had decided to leave.
An anti-Brexit protester wears a Union flag decorated with stars on the EU flag against Parliament's house in London, UK, December 12, 2018. REUTERS / Eddie Keogh
Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union on March 29 months before the citizens of the other 27 EU states choose a new European Parliament.
But with Prime Minister Theresa May unlikely to win British parliamentary support next week for her EU withdrawal treaty, speculation is increasingly that London will try to delay retirement, creating a legal headache for Brussels.
"We are looking at what this can mean, but it is very little that is clear, legal and it depends on what the UK decides to do," says a leading EU official describing a growing discussion on the issue around Brussels and in the EU Member States.
Important complications are:
– how long an extension Britain can apply for its two-year expiry date under Article 50 of the EU Treaty – especially if it leaves before or after the current EU legislature expires on July 1  – whether an extension could end Brexit altogether
– whether a British need to vote for new EU representatives could be postponed after May
– whether the new EU Chamber must ratify the Brexit conditions.
"It is informally discussed. It has not been a formal proposal and it would really need a proposal from the UK Government at some point," said Richard Corbett, a leading British working member of the European Parliament (MEP).
A European government minister from an EU government said that the prospect of the British voting at the end of May to elect members of a House that they would still leave would be "out of politics, but legally we cannot have any other option "
A second EU official said that Britain had told the EU that it had budgeted for an election that, without Brexit, would have been scheduled for Thursday, May 23.
Requested for such plans, Britain's electoral commission said that it had no plan for a choice but it was "experienced in delivering well-managed, unbroken choices and could benefit from this expertise as needed".
There are several scenarios for how a delay to Brexit could play into the EU election, which forms a settlement between Eurosceptic nationalists and more common parties:
– An extension of Britain's six-member EU membership echoes or so to allow loose ends to be shaken if in the end can win parliamentary support. This would have little impact as the UK would be ahead of the European Parliament elections.
– An extension of three months to the end of June may also have limited impact, as the existing EU Parliament would be within its five-year mandate and be able to ratify the Brexit Treaty.
– As of July 2, all EU decisions must be ratified by the new Parliament, elected May 23-26. If the UK is still a formal member and has not returned its MEPs, there may be legal challenges to the validity of the agreement.
– It could reinforce arguments for the British to go to the polls at least on May 23 to elect parliamentarians – but there may then be questions about the role of these MEPs in the election of Brexit.
– Britain could hold a "catch" election to MEPs later on, for example, if it used the extension to hold a second referendum that could repeal Article 50 notification and scrap Brexit.
– Some officials also note a mechanism whereby new Member States send representatives from their national parliaments to the EU legislature until they have had a direct EU election. But applying it to an existing Member State is problematic.
– To add to the problems, the EU has already handed over some of Britain's seat distribution to other countries – but that change will be held in place until after Brexit, which means that some states like France are not sure how many MEPs they can actually select.
The confusion can have a serious impact on EU activities by delaying a timetable for the election of a new EU executive and a new legislative program, including a new seven-year budget.
Officials say that President Jean-Claude Juncker and his EU commission expect to stay outside their mandate at the end of October, even though Brexit is moving smoothly, because it is likely to be beating Eurosceptics in the new Parliament and among the national leaders who should replace Juncker and his law.
Further reporting by Peter Maushagen in Brussels and Elizabeth Piper in London; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Robin Pomeroy