EU member state elections and the Brexit negotiations

Brexit Explained banner

Why do European elections matter to the UK?

Political changes within the 27 other EU member states and the EU institutions are likely to impact the Brexit negotiations and ratification of agreements on the UK’s withdrawal from, and future partnership with, the EU.

In our report Negotiating Brexit: the views of the EU27, we observed that domestic politics would affect the nature of the future relationship sought by each member state with the UK. A change of government in one state could change its approach to the forthcoming ‘phase two’ negotiations. Member states will also have a final say on both the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc, and the nature of its future relationship with the EU once the respective negotiations are complete. Any change of government or (in the case of Lithuania and Romania) head of state near the deadlines for concluding these agreements will introduce uncertainty into the process.

In the case of the Withdrawal Agreement, this uncertainty should be minimal. A deal will need the consent of the European Parliament, followed by a qualified majority (72% of member states) in the European Council – which comprises the heads of the 27 EU member states. But there are only two changes of government on the cards between now and 29 March 2019, when the UK is due to leave the EU: Sweden – which has yet to form a government following elections in early September – and Estonia. Neither is likely to derail the ratification of any deal. The much more significant barrier is reaching an agreement in the first place.

However, there is greater scope for disruption around the future relationship. A comprehensive new partnership deal (or 'mixed agreement') – which this is likely to be – will require both unanimous assent in the Council and ratification by the European Parliament as well as national and/or subnational parliaments. In 2016, the ratification of CETA (the EU’s trade deal with Canada) was almost thwarted by the objections of one of Belgium’s five regional parliaments. The Italian Government has also threatened not to ratify CETA.

With initial agreement on a Brexit transition moving the deadline for a deal on the future relationship to the end of 2020, there is still time for substantial political change across the bloc.

Where are national elections happening across Europe during the Brexit negotiations?

EU member state elections timeline

There are 12 legislative elections scheduled across the EU27 countries between November 2018 and the end of 2020. The Presidents of Lithuania and Romania, who sit as members of the European Council, also face re-election. And there is always the possibility of surprise and snap elections, or the temporary appointment of new leaders – as the resignations of Prime Ministers in Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain over the past year demonstrate. 

These elections have the potential to change the composition of the European Council, and could shift the negotiating approach of individual member states.

The systems of proportional representation and coalition politics in most EU states can result in extended periods following elections where there is no official government, the record being 541 days following the 2010 Belgian general election. More recently, it took 171 days for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to form a new coalition government after last September’s federal election. Italian coalition talks lasted 88 days after the March 2018 election, with the President approving the new government in May. There is still no government in Sweden more than 50 days after its September 2018 election; its previous record was 19 days. These gaps risk further disrupting the negotiations and the ratification processes.

What has happened in recent European elections?

There have already been substantial changes in key member states since the start of the Article 50 process.

  • Emmanuel Macron was elected French President in May 2017, and his party, La République En Marche!, holds an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Macron’s ambitious proposals for greater EU integration are not supported in all European capitals.
  • Sebastian Kurz came in as Austrian Chancellor in October 2017 as leader of the conservative People’s Party, bringing the far-right Freedom Party into government with him in December. Kurz is pro-EU but, unlike Macron, strongly anti-migration. Austria has made the migration issue the focus of its European Council presidency over the second half of 2018, with Brexit much further down its list of priorities.
  • Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban was re-elected for a third term in a landslide victory in April 2018. Like Kurz, much of his popularity stems from his anti-migration stance. However, he is also anti-EU, staunchly opposing further European integration.
  • In Italy, the right-wing coalition led by La Lega and the populist Five Star movement have formed a new government after winning the largest vote shares in the March 2018 election. While both parties are avowedly Eurosceptic, debate with Brussels over Italy’s budget looks likely to tie them up for the time being, limiting their involvement in the Brexit debate.
  • Angela Merkel began her fourth term as German Chancellor earlier this year. But her party’s performance in the September 2017 federal elections was its worst in 70 years. The subsequent six months of coalition negotiations showed that even the most recognisable of European leaders is not safe.

What about the European Parliament elections?

Elections for the European Parliament on 26 May 2019 could also disrupt the Brexit process.

The timing of the elections may limit any possible extension of the Article 50 period. The UK could ask for such an extension if no agreement is reached on the terms of withdrawal by March 2019. But EU members must have MEPs, so continued UK membership beyond May 2019 would imply UK participation in the European Parliament elections. If the UK is unwilling to participate, even a European Council in unanimous agreement over the need for an extension may only feel able to offer a couple of months at most – unless a workaround can be found, such as allowing the UK to temporarily keep on its current MEPs.

The European Parliament will also need to approve both the Withdrawal Agreement and any agreement on the future UK-EU relationship. Its composition will not change before the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement (provided this does happen by March), but the elections in May 2019 and the redistribution of 27 of the UK’s 73 seats to other member states, will mean there are changes before the end of 2020.

Moreover, the elections will limit the time available for the future relationship negotiations. The final plenary session of the current European Parliament will take place in April 2019, with the new Parliament not sitting until July. Although the European Parliament plays no formal role in the negotiations, the Commission updates it regularly on progress, and very little will be done without Parliament’s active engagement.

The current European Commission’s term of office ends on 31 October 2019 – so there will be change here, too. Since the new Commission will be responsible for the decisive phases of the future relationship negotiations with the UK, the current Commission is unlikely to make any major decisions on Brexit that would constrain its successor.

Further complications could arise from the process of deciding on a new Commission President. There is ongoing debate about whether to continue with the 'Spitzenkandidat' system that led Jean-Claude Juncker to the Commission presidency as the nominated candidate of the European People’s Party, the biggest party in the European Parliament elected in 2014. The majority of the European Council, including Emmanuel Macron, have voiced opposition to the process, and the Council made clear in February 2018 that it would not be bound by it when nominating a Commission President to the Parliament for approval, continuing instead to select a nominee at its own discretion.

The European Parliament, however, has adopted a resolution stating that it would not vote in favour of any nominee that was not a ‘lead candidate’ of one of the European political parties. Not everyone in European Parliament supports this position: the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), for example, is strongly opposed to the Spitzenkandidat process. But it does raise the possibility of a stand-off between Parliament and Council in 2019 – and it remains unclear how that would be resolved.

All told, very little progress is likely to be made on the future relationship during 2019 beyond preliminary, technical talks – leaving only one full year to negotiate and ratify what the UK hopes will be the deepest, most comprehensive trade deal the EU has ever struck.

Forthcoming European election dates

Country

Expected election date

Longest time to form a government (day)

Estonia 3 March 2019 39
Finland 14 April 2019 61
Belgium 26 May 2019 (same date as European Parliament elections) 541
European Parliament 26 May 2019 (same date as Belgian elections) n/a
Lithuania (presidential) 12 May 2019 n/a
Denmark 17 June 2019 10
Portugal 13 October 2019 53 
Greece 20 October 2019 42
Poland November 2019 37
Romania (presidential) November or December 2019 n/a
Slovakia March 2020 16
Spain 26 July 2020 314
Lithuania 11 October 2020 60
Croatia 23 December 2020 76
Romania Late 2020/early 2021 24
Update date: 
Monday, November 12, 2018