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Will The UK Participate in the European Elections After All?

The UK was supposed to have left Europe; instead, it might stay in just long enough to participate in the upcoming EU Parliament elections

Theresa May has tried three times to deliver Brexit, but each time, Parliament has voted her deal down. Now, May is gambling it all on a last-ditch effort, by shopping a compromise Brexit deal with Labour. May only has until Wednesday to present the deal to the EU. If she doesn’t do it, the UK will exit the European Union without a deal by Friday.

That is, unless May gets a further extension, delaying Brexit until June 30th. And under the terms of the “flextension” proposed by European Council President, Donald Tusk, Britain’s departure could be delayed even further – by up to a year.

However, if the EU were to grant the UK further extensions, Britain would be required to field candidates for the European Parliament elections this May. As it stands, the EU is more likely to grant a longer extension than another short-term one.

As of now, the European Parliament has 751 MEPs, with 73 apportioned to the UK, the third-largest representation in the bloc after Germany and France. After the country voted to leave, the EU agreed to reduce the total MEPs to 705, with 27 of the former British seats to be redistributed among 14 underrepresented countries. But with the ongoing uncertainty regarding Brexit, it’s not entirely clear how they will participate in the upcoming elections – something that is likely to cause anger in Brussels, as those 27 MEPs have already been reassigned.

That means that if and when the UK participates in the EU elections, the countries which received those 27 British seats, will have to freeze them, while still electing candidates. Those candidates might face a long wait before they can start their mandate in the European Parliament, and some countries will have to figure out how to choose which MEPs or constituencies get “frozen out” while Brexit is delayed. None of this makes anyone very happy.

“It is in the interests of neither the United Kingdom as a departing member state, nor the European Union as a whole, that the United Kingdom holds elections to the European Parliament,” May wrote Friday, in a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, announcing her grudging decision to prepare for the elections.

It’s not like she has much of a choice; any special arrangement to avoid elections altogether, would require either a change in treaties or a new legal framework.  “If the British government refuses to organise elections, they will face the European Court of Justice,” a European Parliament spokesperson said. “The U.K. has all the duties of a member state, the only legal framework the U.K. can rely on are current treaties.”

Angry Brexiteers might attempt to sabotage the entire project from within, by voting for Euroskpetic politicians. In theory, they could partner with other Europskeptic parties running for election. However, the opposite might also prove true, as a group of independent anti-Brexit politicians in Parliament registered a party that could compete in the EU elections. The group, which is made up of 11 pro-Remain MPs who have broken away from both the Conservatives and Labour, submitted an application to the U.K.’s electoral commission, to become a party called “Change UK — The Independent Group”. At least 200 people have since applied to stand as candidates for the party in the European elections. Similarly, the Scottish National Party (SNP), also standing for election, wishes to reverse the Brexit process entirely.


UK MPs part of The Independent Group marching for a People’s Vote to remain in the EU. Copyright: @sarahwollaston / twitter.com

But Euroskeptic politicians, stuck in the halls of the European Parliament, are also keen to make themselves heard: “If a long extension leaves us stuck in the E.U. we should be as difficult as possible,” British lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted Friday. “We could veto any increase in the budget, obstruct the putative E.U. army, and block Mr. Macron’s integrationist schemes.”

European politicians are not happy about this fact, and many have expressly been looking forward to the departure of British Euroskeptic and Brexit architect, Nigel Farage, who is often a thorn in their debates. Even so, Farage is running to represent Britain in the EU Parliament.

Farage told Sky News, “Am I happy about it? No, I’m not, actually, I’ve got many other things in my life I’d like to do. I thought we’d won the Brexit battle. But I’m not going to, after 25 years of endeavour, watch British politicians roll us over. Nope. This is the fight back. And they’re going to be very surprised by what they get.”

If elected, Farage would join other prominent anti-EU politicians, who have done time as  members in the European Parliament, including Italian Euro-skeptic Matteo Salvini, and French nationalist Marine Le Pen. While in office, Euroskeptics have in the past worked together to hobble, or undermine EU governance – and many fear they might again in the near future. Due to the often low turnout during these elections, Euroskeptic politicians have used European Parliament elections to get a foothold in politics, when they failed to make it at home. Farage himself has run and failed seven times for Britain’s Parliament, but has held a seat in the European Parliament since 1999. Now he will run again with the Brexit Party.

The U.K. Independence Party also tweeted that it was “ready to field a full list of candidates in every region throughout the United Kingdom, and #MakeBrexitHappen”.

Like all elections since the 2016 referendum, these elections are seen as something of a proxy for public attitudes towards Brexit. It’s anybody’s call which of these two groups  – Euroskeptic or pro-EU – would get more votes in Britain’s chaotic political environment. According to polls conducted for Politico Europe in January, traditional parties, like Labour and the Conservatives, would still dominate the vote, and the Euroskeptic Independence Party is likely to lose seats. Tories are likely to be punished in the polls for failing to follow through on Brexit, and some polls suggest a loss of 20 MEPs.

European leaders will gather in Brussels on Wednesday, to decide what to do about granting Britain another extension, but any decision made must be unanimous – and some EU states are unclear how strict they intend to be. French President, Emmanuel Macron, is eager to get Britain out of the union as quickly as possible, even ‘sans accord’. But other leaders are more concerned about the downside of the chaos a no-deal exit would bring, being more inclined to avoid it.

In the meantime, election officials are now hunting for spots to reserve as polling stations, and all parties, including the Euro-skeptic ones, are gearing up for elections, with the expectation that May will not be able to get a deal past Parliament by late May. Timing is tight: normally, they would have six months to prepare. Now they have only one.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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