Brexit means … European Parliament elections?

Opinion piece (Clingendael)
02 May 2019

Almost three years after the historic vote to leave the European Union, Britain is destined to participate in the European Parliament elections against the express wishes of most politicians on both sides of the Channel. The latest Brexit extension to 31 October and stalling cross-party talks between the Prime Minister Theresa May and leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn make it nigh on impossible that the British Parliament will ratify the Withdrawal Agreement in time. The 73 British Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will only stay in Brussels and Strasbourg until Britain leaves the EU, possibly only weeks after the elections. And yet, the election results will reverberate beyond 23 May and could have significant consequences for Brexit and shake up the established British party system.

Unsurprisingly, the campaigns have not been about the future of the European Union or specific policies. Instead, the elections represent a polarised proxy referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Leavers will have the chance to protest against Westminster’s failure to finalise the Brexit process and Remainers will be able to voice their demands for another referendum or the revocation of Article 50 at the ballot box. 

Both major parties are toxically divided. The governing Conservatives are split into three factions: those loyal to Theresa May and supportive of her Brexit Deal; a small group of supporters of a second referendum to remain in the EU; and the hard-line Brexiters of the European Research Group who increasingly advocate for a no-deal Brexit. Tellingly, the party has not yet produced a manifesto but it is likely that it would have to recommend May’s deal – which is not only unpopular in Parliament and among voters, but detested by the party’s membership. 

The Labour Party is beset with the dilemma that around 60 % of its constituencies voted to leave in 2016 while most of its membership and MPs voted to remain. Jeremy Corbyn, himself a socialist Eurosceptic, has been trying to reconcile the two sides by pursuing a strategy of constructive ambiguity on Brexit. Corbyn has simultaneously pledged to respect the result of the referendum while rejecting the Prime Minister’s deal and putting forward pie-in-the-sky alternatives. It was hoped that the European Parliament elections would, at last, force the party to present an unequivocal position. But its manifesto continues Labour’s vagueness on Brexit by backing a second referendum only as a last resort if the Conservatives were not to make any concessions on the Withdrawal Agreement or call a general election. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer and deputy leader Tom Watson had unsuccessfully made the case for an obligatory referendum on any deal that Parliament would reach. 

The divisions and ambiguities of both main parties present an opportunity for challenger parties with unequivocal stances on Brexit, especially since European Parliament elections are held under proportional representation rather than Britain’s traditional first-past-the-post system that inherently favours established parties. On the one end of the spectrum, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party and UKIP offer a home to disgruntled Brexiters. On the other end, the new Change UK party, composed of former Labour and Conservative MPs, but also the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, and Scottish and Welsh national parties all advocate for a second referendum to remain in the EU. 

While they are farcical, the European elections have ironically received perhaps more attention from the media, politicians, and voters than any previous ones. Polarisation and active mobilisation from the ardent leave and remain parties will probably lead to a higher turnout than in 2014, when only 35 % of eligible citizens cast their vote. And in Scotland, the elections will not only be about Brexit but also about Scotland’s place in the UK after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon publically renewed her pledge to hold another independence referendum by 2021 if Brexit goes ahead. 

The latest polls suggest that the unequivocal pro- and anti-Brexit camps could attract roughly the same vote share of just over 30 %. With 13 %, the Conservatives are set to be punished with their worst result in living memory in nation-wide elections. Given its ambiguous stance, Labour will probably not capitalise on the Conservatives’ dismay and may only get 22 % of the votes.

Thus, the European elections will probably not produce a strong case for either a harder Brexit or a second referendum. But the likely electoral disaster for the Conservatives will amplify the voices calling for Theresa May’s departure, which would clear the way for a Brexiter Prime Minister – Boris Johnson is widely considered the favourite. And the European Council would be particularly unwilling to extend the Brexit deadline out of fear that a Brexiter Prime Minister would wreak havoc within the EU. That raises the spectre again of a no-deal Brexit cometh October. 

The loss of mainstream parties and the parallel rise of challenger parties on opposite ends of the debate on the EU, and by extension on globalisation, reflect a wider trend towards political fragmentation across the EU. And it may herald a realignment of the British party system. The first-past-the-post system has traditionally strengthened the grip of the Conservatives and Labour and will be a major obstacle for any new party in elections in the future. But Brexit may cause lasting damage to the Conservatives, and the European Parliament elections could be a springboard for new parties to establish themselves before an impending general election and could strengthen the Scottish National Party’s demand for another referendum. 

Leonard Schuette is the Clara Marina O’Donnell fellow (2018-19).