EU member state elections and the Brexit negotiations

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Why do European elections matter to the UK?

Political changes within the 27 EU member states and the EU institutions are likely to impact the Brexit negotiations, and potentially the 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 near the deadlines for concluding these agreements will introduce uncertainty into the process.

A comprehensive new partnership deal (or 'mixed agreement') – which this is likely to be – will require both unanimous assent in the European 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 three regional parliaments. The Italian Government 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?

There are nine legislative elections scheduled across the EU27 countries between June 2019 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 collapse of the Austrian coalition and 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. The Swedish Government took 131 days to form 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 Prime Minister triggered the Article 50 process in March 2017.

  • 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. However, the recent collapse of this coalition means there will be another election in September 2019.
  • 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.
  • In Sweden, the September 2018 election resulted in a stalemate for the traditionally dominant centre left and centre right parties, with gains for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats. A centre-left minority government was formed after four months of deadlock.

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)

Denmark 5 June 2019 10
Greece 7 July 2019 42 
Austria September 2019 129
Portugal 6 October 2019 53
Poland November 2019 37
Romania (presidential) November or December 2019 n/a
Slovakia March 2020 16
Lithuania 11 October 2020 60
Croatia 23 December 2020 76
Romania Late 2020/early 2021 24
Update date: 
Monday, June 3, 2019