Theresa May Gets Another Brexit Headache Amid Brussels Upheaval

  • Breakdown of centrist coalition in EU Parliament creates risk
  • Tensions high after hard-fought election of new assembly chief

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U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s path to leave the European Union just got a little bit more complicated.

Europe’s Socialist party, already struggling in France, Italy and the Netherlands, lost the presidency of the European Parliament, which must approve any Brexit deal. The election last week of a center-right leader signaled the end of a long-standing power-sharing agreement in the assembly, creating the threat of division that could encumber May’s departure preparations.

With the 28-nation Parliament due to vote on any Brexit agreement just before European legislative elections in mid-2019, EU insiders and observers question whether the assembly’s Socialists will go into opposition mode for the next two years. That would bury a traditional grand coalition of centrist European parties, leave them taking aim at each other in a bid to stem populist momentum and heighten the risk of an assembly veto of any accord on the U.K.’s exit from the bloc.

“We have to be very careful,” Glyn Ford, a former U.K. Socialist member of the EU Parliament who is now executive director of consultancy Polint, said by phone in Brussels. “The chance of a Parliament ‘No’ on a Brexit deal is likely to be higher without a grand coalition than with one. It’s in the interest of everybody to try to stitch it back together.”

Center-right candidate Antonio Tajani’s victory handed Europe’s Christian Democratic party -- to which German Chancellor Angela Merkel belongs -- the EU’s top three jobs: presiding over the Parliament; running the bloc’s executive arm; and chairing the gatherings of the 28 national leaders.

The acrimonious breakdown of the power-sharing accord in the Parliament sparked a hunt by the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, the two biggest groups, for backing for their rival presidential candidates from other factions in the assembly. The organization, where no group enjoys a majority, has a say on most European legislation and is more splintered after an increase in populist forces in 2014 EU elections.

“What happens in the European Parliament gives a pretty good idea of the state of national politics across the EU,” said Doru Frantescu, chief executive officer of VoteWatch Europe, a Brussels-based think tank. “If the Socialists develop an opposition-party mentality, they will be more provocative, they will be more critical of what is being negotiated on Brexit.”

The election of Tajani, an ally of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, came in a secret vote on Jan. 17 in Strasbourg, France, that lasted more than 11 hours. It marked the first time since 1982 that the ballot went all the way to a fourth and final round.

Tajani received a congratulatory call from May on Jan. 21, when he told the British leader he looked forward to working with her while vowing to “protect the interests of European citizens” during the Brexit talks, the assembly said in an e-mailed statement.

Manfred Weber, floor leader of the Christian Democrats, showed up on short notice in the EU Parliament’s Strasbourg press room the morning after the ballot, saying there were “a lot of emotions yesterday.” He urged his group’s members to reach out to Socialist colleagues, stressing the need to marginalize anti-EU forces in the assembly as it prepares to vote on matters such as Europe’s free-trade agreement with Canada.

The Parliament’s international-trade committee is due to give its recommendation on the EU-Canada deal on Tuesday, with the full chamber planning its verdict in February.

Read about Tajani’s election victory in the European Parliament.

“It was never our wish to have this kind of conflict,” Weber said. “We have a lot of very important things and steps to do and I hope we can still count on the responsible part of the Socialist group.”

Ford, the former EU Parliament member, said an early indication of whether the Socialist group is willing to re-establish a centrist grand coalition will come later this year when the assembly outlines its priorities for the Brexit negotiations. Those talks, which May has said she’ll trigger before the end of March, will be conducted on behalf of the EU by the Brussels-based European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm.

Meanwhile, national leaders including Merkel must weigh whether to give the Socialists a bigger stake in Europe’s governance by appointing someone from their ranks to succeed Polish Christian Democrat Donald Tusk in the job of EU president chairing the bloc’s summits. Ford says denying the Socialists that post when Tusk’s term expires in May would be risky.

“The Socialists would say ‘forget it, we’ve got nothing,”’ Ford said. “That could force them into taking a more adversarial stance on EU policy matters because, otherwise, they would risk getting the blame without any of the gain.”

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