The Guardian leads on the obvious – that when Theresa May’s Brexit deal gets voted down on Tuesday there will need to be an extension of time to allow the UK to come up with an alternative plan. The current Article 50 declaration runs out of time on March 30th and, if there is no agreement by then, the default option of a no deal Brexit automatically kicks in. Whilst it seemed like a good idea at the time to hold the Government’s (and MP’s) feet to the fire, it is now the general view that a no deal Brexit should only be an avenue taken by choice, not by absence of any positive decision to the contrary.
So if there is an extension (a period of a few months has been mentioned) the next real deadline for the EU is when new MEPs meet for the first time at the beginning of July. And if the UK is still a member, even if only temporarily, then it will need MEPs.
Theresa May might well believe that she can use a couple of extra months to get a slightly better deal. But will that be enough to get sufficient MPs on board or will we simply be kicking the can down the road? If May cannot win on Tuesday then she will have a maximum of one more chance at securing Parliamentary approval. She will want to make sure she has every chance to get it right this time. A delay of only two months won’t guarantee that, whilst six months or so just might.
But this is, fundamentally a blog about elections, so let’s return to that – and the thorny problem of the British MEPs.
The current batch expect to be out of a job after the end of March. And, as suggested above, an extension of a couple of months won’t be a problem logistically. But what if the UK remains a part of the EU – for whatever reason – after that.
There are a number of options:
- The UK could do without any MEP representation
- The current MEPs could carry on
- New MEPs could be appointed rather than elected
- New elections could be held
None of these options is exactly easy. For a member state to do without MEPs goes against the whole point of the EU. If the UK government could assert that it would only be for a few weeks then they might have some logic when the cost of new elections is considered. But I’m guessing this would not be looked upon favourably by the EU at a time when May will need as many favours as possible. I would also expect this option to lead to a court case from Remain supporters.
Keeping the current MEPs in post or appointing replacements is another short term solution, but is anti-democratic. It may also antagonise other countries and lead to court cases.
The only solution which is unlikely to lead to court cases and opposition within the EU is for the UK to fall into line with the other 27 countries and hold elections at the end of May. The Prime Minister will, of course, not even countenance this option until after she has been defeated on Tuesday. But after that she will be forced to. Her first instinct will be to say that new elections won’t be needed as she is sure that the deal will be done in time – whatever that deal is. But how much confidence will there be behind such a statement? But even a quick deal almost certainly means a period after the beginning of July when the UK is part of the EU and will therefore need to have MEPs.
That’s the technical side of things. What about the politics?
Neither of the two largest parties will want European Parliament elections. For both the Conservatives and Labour it will force them to have a clear position on EU membership that is out of step with most party members and voters. Jeremy Corbyn has been focussed exclusively on calling for a general election because he knows he can win on issues such as the NHS and jobs but that his position on the EU is unpopular among many Labour supporters. On the Conservative side, most members favour as hard a Brexit as possible and won’t be happy to campaign for new MEPs on the basis of the May deal.
The Lib Dems, SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru should be much more in favour of these elections. But campaigns cost money to parties as well as the Exchequer and the smaller parties may be hesitant about a full scale effort when those elected may well only be in place for a short while and a 2019 general election is also possible.
Perhaps the only party that will be happy about these elections would be UKIP. A party that has lost almost all of its media coverage in recent months would suddenly become relevant again, even if it loses MEPs compared with the last elections as the group has seen almost half of their MEPs defect. Re-engaging with the media, gaining vote share at a time when a general election is possible, electing new and loyal MEPs – UKIP will love it.
But what of the party’s erstwhile leader Nigel Farage? The ‘Face of Brexit’ has announced that he is no longer a member of UKIP after leader Gerard Batten appointed Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as an advisor. Surely, if there are to be new MEP elections then he will want to be part of it, especially as he is likely to be squeezed from most media if he is not a contestant. Talk of Farage joining the Conservatives has been doing the rounds, but that unlikely scenario becomes an impossibility if he has to then speak in support of something other than the hardest Brexit. So does he swallow his pride and rejoin UKIP or start a new party? My bet would be on the latter and this is likely to have the consequence of dragging some current Conservatives along with him.
So whilst the law might require Theresa May to hold elections to the European Parliament in May, there is no upside for her in such a move. She will fight the proposal with all her might even if the best chance of her securing something approximating to her deal is an extension of six months or so. Whether it is a court case or the ticking of the clock into the new European Parliament era, my prediction is that the UK will be forced to hold MEP elections either on or after the due date.
UPDATE: Nigel Farage has said he will indeed be looking for a new party and will stand if the UK participates in MEP elections this year.