Amid Brussels Upheaval, Another Brexit Headache for Theresa May

The path of leaving the European Union just got a little bit more complicated for the U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.

Control of the European Parliament, which must approve any Brexit deal, was lost by the Socialist party, already struggling in France, Italy and the Netherlands. Creating the possibility of division that could encumber May’s departure preparations, the election last week signaled the end of a long-standing power-sharing agreement in the assembly.

EU insiders and observers question if the assembly’s Socialists will go into opposition mode for the next two years with the Parliament due to vote on any Brexit agreement just before European legislative elections in mid-2019. 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, the traditional grand coalition of centrist European parties would be left taking aim at each other by that.

“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 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.”

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, were handed by the center-right candidate Antonio Tajani’s victory to the European Christian Democratic party — to which German Chancellor Angela Merkel belongs.

A hunt by the Christian Democrats and the Socialists for backing for their rival presidential candidates from other factions in the assembly was sparked by the acrimonious breakdown of the power-sharing accord in the Parliament. The organization is more splintered after an increase in populist forces in 2014 EU elections and has a say on most European legislation.

“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.”

Marking the first time since 1982 that the ballot went all the way to a fourth and final round, 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.

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

“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.”

(Adapted from Bloomberg)

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