EU unity has been one of the great surprises of Brexit: the bloc’s 27 remaining member states have managed to hold a united front in public in a way the UK a single country could only dream of.
But with the UK’s departure delayed until October crucially, after the EU elections – that unity is being tested as never before, and the results are surfacing in the European parliament itself.
Guy Verhofstadt, long adored by British Remainers for mocking Brexiteers and championing citizens’ rights, surprised a few of those campaigners when he stood up in the European parliament on Wednesday.
“The only thing that can save us is Nigel Farage,” the EU federalist said – prompting applause from the arch Eurosceptic himself and nervous glances from the Lib Dem MEP sitting behind him.
Verhofstadt argued that the latest Brexit extension was a bad thing, and that Britain’s continued membership of the block would “poison” the EU and “import” uncertainty from London.
The intervention, which drew a sharp rebuke from council president Donald Tusk, raised eyebrows in Brussels, because it was eerily similar to the argument made by Emmanuel Macron. The French president had been the only leader to oppose a long extension at a summit in Brussels last week, blocking an even lengthier delay until 2020.
A large majority of member states were supportive of a long extension, and only one, that is France, was of a different view,” one senior EU official explained.
It is no secret that Mr Verfhofstadt has been courting Mr Macron’s new En Marche party, whose MEPs he wants to sit in his centrist ALDE European parliament group after next month’s elections.
The aftermath of EU elections is a numbers game, and the bigger your parliamentary group is the more influence it has, and the more senior roles its top members get. Convincing unattached national parties like Macron’s new outfit to join can be just as effective at increasing a group’s size as its existing parties winning extra votes.
Some Remain-supporting British MEPs now privately want Verhofstadt replaced as EU Brexit coordinator, one describing his stance as “totally self-serving and party political”. They have yet to say so in public, however, and are unlikely to have the numbers to get rid of him.
This is because Verhofstadt is far from the only group leader to be concerned with the politics of the coming elections. The leader of the biggest group in the parliament Manfred Weber has also been an outspoken opponent of an extension for the UK, describing British participation in the elections as “simply unthinkable”.
Out of anyone, Weber probably stands to lose the most from the UK extension. He is the centre-right EPP’s lead candidate to be the next commission president, replacing Jean-Claude Juncker, and his chances of winning could be jeopardised by the UK’s participation.
Meanwhile, the groups said to be most keen on an extension in Brexit steering group meetings the socialists and the greens also happen to do well out of the UK’s membership. Labour’s relatively buoyant polling could see it deliver the biggest delegation of MEPs to the socialist group from any country, while the Green group benefits not only from Green MEPs, but also those of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, who sit with it for technical reasons – it’s that numbers game again.
It’s difficult to predict what impact these divisions will have on Brexit or the UK – if any. The European parliament notably has no powers over whether an extension is granted or not: that is up to member states. Its role in talks is relatively marginal, and though it must approve the final withdrawal agreement, that does not look to be in contention.