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Resigned Brussels expects Britain to vote in EU poll

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A man walks past the flags of Anti-Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament in London on February 12, 2019. – British Prime Minister Theresa May asked MPs Tuesday to give her more time for talks with the European Union on renegotiating the Brexit deal, just weeks before the scheduled March 29 departure date. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)

Frustrated EU officials may insist London cannot postpone Brexit indefinitely without a plan, but they are resigned to Britain taking part in the European election in May and are making preparations.

Prime Minister Theresa May will likely come to Thursday’s summit in Brussels to plead for more time for her parliament to agree the terms of an orderly divorce.

After some grumbling, EU leaders will probably agree, and then — in what European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker calls an “irony of history” — election planning begins.

British leaders say they still intend to leave the bloc, but if they haven’t set a firm date for this by the time EU voters head to the polls from May 23 they will have to take part.

And then another batch of British members, perhaps the last such cohort, will take their seats in Strasbourg when the next European Parliament opens in the first week of July.

Legal advice prepared for member states last week, seen by AFP, confirms that Britain would be in breach of EU law if it failed to hold the vote.

And the European Union executive, any member state or even any European citizen who objects to this state of affairs could lodge a complaint.

Whatever their views on Brexit, EU officials and politicians do not want the legal foundation of the new parliament to be in doubt, so they have a back-up plan.

They had planned to replace the 73 British seats by redistributing 27 of them to countries with growing populations, and holding 46 in reserve for future new members.

But, at a summit in June last year, EU leaders agreed that if Britain postpones its planned March 29 departure then the redistribution will be put on hold.

Countries like France and Spain that were expecting five new MEPs each will have to elect them in May and then hold them as “stand-bys”, an EU diplomat told AFP.

If and when London finally gets round to leaving the European Union institutions in a legal sense, the British MEPs will lose their places and the stand-bys step in.

So the legal plan is in place, but the political picture remains complex.

Allowing Britain to take part, analysts Larissa Brunner and Fabian Zuleeg say, could lead to a new influx of Eurosceptic members opposed to their own parliament.

‘Quasi-referendum’
This, they wrote for the European Policy centre, could “have adverse consequences for the balance of power” in the Strasbourg assembly, and in the UK system itself.

Conservatives hoping to dominate appointments to the next EU Commission worry that British Labour members could temporarily swell the ranks of the centre-left SD bloc.

Eurosceptic British Conservatives and populists such as Nigel Farage’s new group and his former UKIP party, could also seize on a delay to demand a faster Brexit.

“Leave supporters would worry about the UK not leaving after all… Remainers hope of reversing Brexit could be rekindled,” the think tankers wrote.

As a result, the May election could become a “quasi-referendum” or de facto re-run of Britain’s Brexit vote — with the moderate centre squeezed out.

And with Britain in political and constitutional chaos, what would happen if May’s government doesn’t even try to organise a European vote?

Some in Brussels had been fearful the new parliament might not be seen as legitimate, and legislation with nothing to do with Brexit be challenged.

The parliament’s own legal service dismisses this, arguing in a note that the next session would still be legally constituted.

But lawyers at the European Council, which represents member states, are not so relaxed, arguing in their own note to ambassadors that the Union would no longer be on clear legal ground.

The leaders gathering on Thursday are expected to insist that if Britain wants to remain a member beyond July 1, it must clearly pledge to organise voting.


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