What happens to the UK’s seats in the European Parliament after Brexit?

British departure has set in motion an altogether different round of negotiations on the continent

April 25, 2018
Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images
Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

Among the plethora of changes that the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will bring, it’s sometimes easy to forget that some of those changes will concern the EU itself. Unlike the Council, where the UK is simply removed from the room, the question of what happens to British seats in the European Parliament is proving rather fraught.

At present, the UK has 73 seats, one of the largest national blocs—outsized by only Germany and France. The allocation of seats roughly follows a principle of taking into account a country’s population size, whilst also ensuing small states get enough representatives to allow for different national parties to stand a chance of getting elected.

This model runs by the engagingly technical name of “digressive proportionality” and is embedded in the EU’s treaties, making it not easily changed.

Over time, the European Parliament has grown as new member states have joined. It has now reached 751 MEPs, making it one of the largest elected chambers in the world.

That size now sits at the root of current discussions.

For many member states, the withdrawal of the UK represents an opportunity to reverse that pattern of growth (which has also had cost implications, obviously). Being able to cut down numbers by nearly one-tenth looked like a bit of no-brainer, especially at a time of austerity.

However, the Parliament has had different ideas.

Most controversially, it has been seen by some as an opportunity to bring to life an idea that has long been floated, namely transnational lists. Instead of the current system of each country running European elections on their own electoral system and with national parties contesting them, there would be a set of lists of candidates for each of the groupings in the Parliament, who would represent voters across the entire Union.

This would, it’s argued, strengthen the representative nature of the Parliament and highlight the common interests that European citizens have, as well as giving the Parliament groupings further means to strengthen their standing in the emerging European political system.

But that strengthening of the European level is taken as implying a weakening of the national level, so governments—composed of those very national parties that might lose out—have so far rejected this idea.

The current proposal from the Parliament is to use some of the UK’s seats to address the under-representation of some member states.

That means five extra MEPs for France and Spain; three for Italy and the Netherlands; two for Ireland; and one each for Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

However, that only accounts for 27 seats, taking the overall Parliament down to 705.

Matters now rest in the hands of the member states, who have to find their own consensus before returning it to the Parliament for a final approval.

That step has been complicated by a separate issue, around the Spitzenkandidaten system for connecting the European elections next May to the choice of Commission President: once again, the member states worry about the Parliament trying to enhance its role at the expense of national leaders.

All of which sets the ground for a more protracted round of negotiations and horse-trading. Brexit won’t kill the European Union, but its departure will not make its politics any simpler.