May Day: Brexit & the Future of Europe
Federico Fabbrini (Director, DCU Brexit Institute)
On 23 May 2019 – exactly 35 months after the British people voted to leave the European Union (EU) – the United Kingdom (UK), against all expectations, held elections for the European Parliament (EP). On 24 May 2019, Theresa May announced her resignation as UK Prime Minster and leader of the Conservative Party. EP election results, which were published only on 27 May 2019, confirmed what polls had been anticipating: the newly-founded, single-issue Brexit Party of Nigel Farage triumphed at the ballot box, drawing almost 32% of the national vote, and securing for itself 29 out of 73 UK seats in the EP. While the Liberal Democrats (Lib-Dems) and other pro-Remain parties such as the Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru also did well – with 16, 7, 4 and 1 EP seats each, all improving their performance compared to the 2014 EP elections – the vote was a bloodbath for the Tories – as well as for Labour. The Conservative Party ended up in fifth place, with a meager 9% of the national votes, and 4 EP seats (15 seat less than in 2014). And Labour equally payed for its indecisive position on Europe, drawing just 14% of the vote, slicing by half its contingent at the EP (from 20 to 10 seats) and ending up in third position in the ranking.
In an election which according to the original plans should never have occurred, the British people vented their frustration at the political parties which had traditionally governed the UK for a century, rewarding the clarity of political forces like the Brexit Party, or the LibDems – with an explicit Leave or Remain agenda. The resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May, already fragile at the head of an unruly party and cabinet, was a matter of course following this electoral result. But it does not change the arithmetic: the UK remains a heavily divided country, with the people and the political class increasingly polarizing on an existential question about membership of the EU. The beginning of a process to identify a new leader of the Conservative Party, which will start on 7 June 2019, is likely to lead to a more hard-line Brexit Prime Minister – not least as the Tories need to ward off the threat of the Brexit Party on their right. But EP elections have not altered the composition of Westminster, which remains broadly hostile to a no-deal Brexit. And if anything, the positive performance of the Remain parties will also increase the calls for a second peoples’ vote.
The complications of the EP election results for the process of UK withdrawal from the EU were further compounded by the outcome of the same elections elsewhere in Europe. Despite apocalyptic predictions about a takeover of the EP by sovereigntist and populist forces, the pro-European parties overall clung on to control of the EU institutions. Certainly, important national variations have to be mentioned: in Italy, the Lega, a nationalist party lead by fire-brand Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini won the poll, with 34% support and 29 seats; and in Hungary and Poland the Fidesz and PiS governing parties topped the national competition. However, these results were balanced by the positive performance of social-democratic, popular and liberal parties in the Netherlands, Ireland, Portugal and Spain – as well as in Germany where Die Grunen (the Greens) emerged as the biggest electoral surprise, coming in second place with 20% of the vote. Moreover, while in France President Emmanuel Macron’s movement trailed Marine Le Pen’s Rassamblement nationale (National Rally), pro-European forces overall prevailed thanks to a high turnout.
The composition of the next EP, therefore, will once again reflect a Europhile majority with the European Peoples’ Party (EPP), the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), the Alliance for the Liberal Democrats (ALDE) and the Greens endowed with a solid working majority. Because the elections of the EP influence the appointment of the Commission– as well as the choice of the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, the European Council President and the European Central Bank head – the outcome of the vote across Europe makes it highly unlikely that the EU approach toward Brexit will fundamentally change. As such, any hope by the Brexiteers that the EP elections may lead toward a more EU-skeptic and Brexit-friendly EP were shattered. In fact, with the Sptizenkandidaten process increasingly in doubt, the likelihood that Michel Barnier, the Chief EU Brexit Negotiator, could become the next President of the European Commission has increased. All this suggests that after the EP elections, in the next months we may witness a déjà vu in the Brexit negotiations: a very united EU, and a very divided UK. But worry not: after May, there is June.