Elections to the European Parliament rarely arouse more than passing interest here. Every five years since 1979, they have come and gone with precious little debate—and abysmally low turnouts.
Not this time. Most voters this Thursday will not care that the body itself is toothless or that it has no role whatsoever in resolving the Brexit crisis. These elections have given a platform to the most strident voices in the debate about Britain’s relationship with the European Union (EU) and a chance to rally protest votes for their positions.
For the newly formed Brexit Party, led by far-right demagogue in chief Nigel Farage, this vote was never supposed to happen. That the elections are taking place, as a condition of the EU’s giving Britain more time on Brexit, is itself a “betrayal” of the outcome of the 2016 referendum and a “humiliation” imposed on “a great nation.”
For uncompromising opponents of Brexit, represented by several small parties and some in the Labour Party, they are a chance to demonstrate support for the second referendum—or “people’s vote”—they hope would reverse the decision to leave. Such is the populist mood that one of the Remain parties—the Liberal Democrats—has even adopted “bollocks to Brexit” as their slogan.
Polling suggests the governing Tories will be the main victim of this polarization. They could see their vote plummet to below 10 percent as most of their supporters defect to the Brexit Party and some conservative remainers join former Tory deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine in migrating to the Liberal Democrats.
Labour, meanwhile, has also been squeezed from both sides. Though still leading in polling for the Westminster Parliament, its support dips when people are asked about their voting intentions on Thursday. In most, it is in second place to the Brexit Party, and one has it third, a point behind the Liberal Democrats, who look certain to beat the Greens and Change UK (a new group of former Labour and Tory lawmakers) in the battle to be the largest Remain party.
Labour has struggled with the Brexit issue for three years. There are broadly three trends of opinion in the party: Lexiteers who see the EU as inherently neoliberal and fiscally conservative, Remain-but-reform advocates who accept many of the Lexit arguments but believe the EU can be changed from within, and Euro-enthusiasts who view the organization almost wholly as a force for good.
The party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been criticized for being lukewarm about the EU during the 2016 referendum. But his supporters argue that the Remain campaign could have done better—especially in deindustrialized working-class areas—had it adopted a more skeptical remain-but-reform approach.
After the referendum, Labour accepted the result and advocated a new relationship with the EU involving a customs union and alignment of employment and environmental standards. This policy was in the party’s manifesto for the 2017 general election—when it won its best vote in 20 years and unexpectedly denied the Tories a parliamentary majority. That result forced Tory leader Theresa May to turn to the small Northern Ireland–based Democratic Unionist Party to stay in power.
But it was always going to be an unstable situation. On the one hand, a politically weakened May was left vulnerable to pressure from lawmakers on her own benches who see Brexit as an opportunity to create a deregulated, low-wage economy making its own trade deals and competing with the EU. On the other, she faced pressure from big corporations operating across Europe to deliver a “soft” exit that would minimize disruption to trade and the movement of capital.
The withdrawal agreement May negotiated ended up pleasing virtually no one—and was heavily rejected by lawmakers on three separate occasions ahead of the original self-imposed March 29 deadline for Britain to leave the EU.
After the 2017 election, May should have followed the logic of the new parliamentary arithmetic by opening talks with Labour. There is a potential majority in Parliament for an exit deal based on a customs union, but May, putting avoiding a rift in her own party and her own survival as Tory leader first, never really pursued it.
When hard-core Tory Brexiteers would still not support her deal, she had no choice but to plead with EU leaders for an extension and start negotiations with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Six weeks of talks ended last Friday with Corbyn saying that they had been “unable to bridge important policy gaps” and expressing concern at statements made by May’s own senior ministers opposing “any form of customs union,” apparently in contrast to “proposals made by government negotiators.”
Labour’s key worry was the instability of the government and the possibility that it could take the political risk of signing up to a compromise—only to find it ditched when May is ousted, as is now virtually certain to happen after these elections.
Whoever succeeds May will, however, face the same conundrum. They could call a general election to seek a mandate for their preferred type of Brexit, but they would risk Labour winning on a radical anti-austerity platform. They could try to improve May’s deal in ways that might secure a parliamentary majority, but the new deadline is October 31 and EU leaders have in any case ruled out further changes (though not a new approach based on a customs union).
Proponents of a people’s vote say the only way out of the crisis is to have another referendum, and want Corbyn to campaign for it. But even if a second referendum were to win a majority in Parliament, there is no consensus on what options would be put to the electorate. If it is limited to a choice between a botched Tory deal and Remain, that would exclude both Labour’s customs union and the Brexit Party’s preferred path of leaving without a deal. Half the electorate would feel cheated, with grave consequences politically.
Corbyn has resisted pressure to back a reversal of Brexit in a second referendum and insisted that Labour is a party of both leavers and remainers. In launching Labour’s campaign for the European elections, he warned the country was in danger of being “stuck in an endless loop,” divided by terms that “meant nothing to us only a few years ago.” Arguing that the real divide in Britain is “not how people voted in the EU referendum,” he said, “To transform our country and tackle injustice, inequality and the climate crisis we need to unite the overwhelming majority of people and take on the privileged and powerful.”
That’s a difficult argument to make in the polarized atmosphere of the Brexit crisis. The vote on Thursday is being positioned by much of the media as a second referendum by proxy, and those with the strongest views on both sides are bound to have the greatest motivation to actually turn out. But a general election, which cannot be ruled out in this unstable environment, would be a different ball game, allowing more fundamental issues to come to the fore.