The European Union says it has plenty on its to-do list besides managing Brexit.
That could prove to be good news for the UK prime minister Theresa May as she seeks a smooth UK departure from the bloc in March 2019.
The European Parliament, which has veto power over any Brexit agreement, is gearing up for elections in mid-2019 as a slew of other big-ticket items starts to fill the EU agenda. These initiatives, meant to show the bloc’s vigour, will give policymakers campaign talking points, shift the spotlight from the UK’s withdrawal and make it politically easier for the assembly to approve any deal on the terms of Brexit.
“Even before the European elections, an important road map with key decisions is underway,” said Maria Joao Rodrigues, a Portuguese vice-chair of the 28-nation Parliament’s Socialist group, in her office at the assembly’s headquarters in Strasbourg, France. “While the Brexit negotiations are taking place, the EU is moving ahead with its road map and these two things will go in parallel. This means we’ll have a big-bang moment in 2019.”
The EU’s work programme puts a common thread through a wide variety of policy initiatives and creates a counterpoint to Brexit, ensuring the UK’s scheduled departure can be viewed in a broader, more positive context for the bloc rather than as an unprecedented wound.
That could be crucial when the time comes for the 751-seat European Parliament to give its verdict on any accord between Brussels and London on the divorce settlement, including the multibillion-euro bill, the rights of EU citizens in Britain and the future border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
“There’s an indirect link between any Brexit agreement and the upcoming EU Parliament elections,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, the director of studies at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. “People will be looking at the atmosphere in 2019 to see whether the bloc of 27 member countries is progressing. If so, that would play into the hands of pro-European forces and mean any Brexit deal wouldn’t be viewed in isolation.”
The assembly has so far set a hard line for the Brexit negotiators, raising the prospect of an agreement with messy compromises being gunned down and of the UK crashing out of the bloc. The risk of an eventual veto has grown since a power-sharing accord in the EU Parliament between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, the two-biggest factions, broke down earlier this year and made the legislature more unpredictable.
“We can only convince people in an election campaign for our pro-European approach if we have an idea for the future,” Manfred Weber, German leader of the assembly’s Christian Democrats, said in Strasbourg. “We need a visionary aspect.”
The EU is emerging from years of fire-fighting undertaken to prevent national indebtedness from shattering the euro zone, inflows of refugees from breaking apart the continent’s passport-free travel zone and centrifugal forces of the kind that fuelled Brexit from putting the bloc’s very existence into question.
In that context, the EU is lining up high-profile initiatives that include a summit in November to address social inequalities across Europe; draft legislation in December to beef up the euro-zone rescue fund and create a common finance chief for the single currency; and a proposal next May on a new multi-annual spending programme for the bloc after Brexit.
Meanwhile, the EU is also pushing for deeper defence-policy cooperation, a breakthrough in talks over a revamp of common asylum rules and progress toward European free-trade accords with Latin American and Pacific countries.
This whole agenda “will create a new momentum for European integration”, Ms Rodrigues said. “Our main concern is not about Brexit. Our main concern is to make sure the European Union, as a big undertaking in world history, moves to the next stage to cope with the new challenges.”
The Brexit negotiations are hung up on the divorce settlement, delaying the start of parallel talks on the the UK’s post-Brexit trade ties with the EU. The bloc’s leaders aim to give the green light in December for that second phase, a step that would bring a final Brexit deal more into focus.
Ms Rodrigues said the EU Parliament would act in a “principled” way rather than an ideological one when scrutinising any Brexit accord. She signalled the assembly will insist on respect for EU fundamental principles while being practical.
“In the end, the Parliament always has a pragmatic side - that’s for sure,” she said.