Tuesday 16 July 2019

Q&A: 'Extra time' looms but the election clock ticks on for the European Union


Ballot box: Theresa May is under increasing pressure since the UK parliament rejected her Brexit plan. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Ballot box: Theresa May is under increasing pressure since the UK parliament rejected her Brexit plan. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

What odds on Brexit being extended beyond the March 29 deadline?

Shortening by the day as both London and Brussels walk their way back from insisting no such thing can happen. Things have moved painfully slowly in the UK since the shock decision by voters on June 23, 2016, to end 40-plus years of EU membership.

It is only now the country is having a real debate on issues which should have been dealt with ahead of the vote. Strongest hint of delay came when UK Finance Minister Philip Hammond told British business leaders there would be no hurtling towards a crash-out Brexit in 10 weeks' time.

What is the view from Brussels on an extension?

Well, they have been looking at the option of delay for some time. The technical term is extending Article 50, the provision which allows a member state to leave. Its spare terminology only tells us that an extension must be specifically sought by London and unanimously approved by all the other 27 member states.

Nothing formal has happened yet - but the EU has signalled it needs some kind of plan from the UK government rather than more of the same chaos.

What length of extension is being talked about?

EU officials fear available time for any extension is very short. European Parliament elections are due to held in late May, meaning we could be talking mere weeks. Given the volume of issues to be decided in London and the additional time needed for some of the potential remedies - notably either another UK general election or a second referendum - an extension of weeks appears to be of little value.

Some engaged in the process believe an extension should run until the end of this year or early 2020. But the MEP elections, due in Ireland on May 24 next, are a major complication.

How do the European Parliament elections complicate things?

The assumption in London and Brussels was that the UK would be gone from the EU by May 2019 and those European Parliament elections.

So the UK's 73 MEP seats have been abolished, with 46 seats held back for new member states in the future, and 27 of them allocated as extras to existing member states.

The Republic of Ireland gains two seats but the North clearly loses its three of the UK seats as part of Brexit. Those changes could be questioned if the UK is still an EU member state come election time.

In theory the UK would still be entitled to their complement of MEPs. In practice many other member states risk having their elections rightly messed up.

Another complication is that a remedy definitely must be found before July 2 when the new European Parliament opens. The parliament must also ratify the Brexit deal at some stage.

Surely there are some remedies from all those EU legal brainboxes?

In the past, EU politicians have come up with clever fixes and ever-so-clever EU lawyers have managed to navigate these through potential legal minefields. But this one is more complex.

The EU could proceed with extended talks, perhaps with the collusion of London, on the assumption that the UK has effectively left. But some UK citizen is bound to ask the EU courts to rule on a denial of their democratic rights to representation.

In the other member states, including Ireland, the extra seat allocations could be "boxed off", but still put out to elections. Those lowest in the polls could ultimately lose out.

But that is another court case waiting to happen. How do you measure "lowest polled?" Would it be relative to the electorate, or valid poll, or population?

Cue more legal cases.

Irish Independent

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