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What your vote in the European elections will and won’t change on Brexit

What your vote in the European elections will and won’t change on Brexit

Simon Usherwood (University of Surrey and UK in a Changing Europe)

One of the less-noticed side-effects of the Easter break was that it made it almost certain that the UK will hold elections on 23 May for the European Parliament. While it was clear that Westminster needed some time to recover after an exceptionally busy period, it has meant that there’s not really any chance of pushing through the Withdrawal Agreement in time.

Indeed, if Parliament fails – as seems very likely – to approve that Agreement in the first weeks of May, then it’ll be the case that those MEPs elected will get to take up their seats and start their terms on 1 July.

That matters not simply as a technicality but as a key part of how you might look at the European elections and how they fit with Brexit.

On both Leave and Remain sides of the debate, there is a lot of talk about using your vote to send a message and to secure an outcome. But can that be the case?


What your MEP does

Perhaps it’s most useful to start by considering what an MEP actually does with their day.

The European Parliament’s role in the EU is to represent the popular will, in both making decisions and providing scrutiny of the work of the rest of the organisation.

That means MEPs get to have a say on the very large majority of legislation made by the EU – in conjunction with the Council (where member states are represented) – and to call witnesses and write reports on various subjects.

On top of that, this summer, the new Parliament will get to approve the new Commission. That involves confirming a President and then the rest of the Commissioners, after public hearings. As a means for conferring some further legitimacy to the Commission, it highlights the importance of the Parliament in constitutional terms, rather than simply legislative ones.

British MEPs will get to take part in those decisions if the UK is still a member at the point, and their votes might prove to be vital in shaping each and any of these decisions: with 73 MEPs, the UK makes up nearly 10% of the body’s members, so its presence will matter.


What your MEP doesn’t do

You’ll notice that in this list there’s nothing about Brexit.

In fact, the only role in the Brexit process that the European Parliament has is to approve the Withdrawal Agreement, as part of Article 50. British MEPs would get to vote on that too, but that’s it.

And this really matters, because your choice of MEP won’t directly affect Brexit, either in the EU or in the UK.

What it might do is serve as a demonstration of public attitudes towards Brexit, which UK politicians might then use to further their agendas.

Put differently, even if every MEP elected on 23 May was committed to a particular course of action, then that would not mean this course would necessarily be taken. That hangs on Westminster.

And such an election result won’t happen, because MEPs are elected on a proportional representation basis, so we’re almost certain to see a wide range of Brexit views represented in the new cohort of MEPs, from no-dealers to remainers, and assorted ambiguous points in-between.


What counts

All of this points to a dangerous ambiguity in the coming election.

If you care about shaping Brexit, then you need to not simply vote for a party on 23 May, but also work to ensure that is then translated into action by UK politicians. Hence the pressure on Labour to commit to another referendum, or the appeals by the Brexit party to send a message to get on with leaving.

But the more we focus on the domestic arena, the less we notice that MEPs matter for other reasons. If we assume they’re there until October, then they’ve got to vote on the Commission president, on several key pieces of legislation that will impact on the UK, plus they’ll have gotten to choose the Parliament’s own officers.

If there’s another extension to the end of the year, then they’ll get to elect the full Commission, vote on more legislation and also get to decide on the 2020 budget of the EU. And if they’re still around by the middle of next year, then they’ll have shaped the financial framework for EU budgets through to 2027.

Those things matter, and matter for the UK whatever future it chooses, but they all risk being lost in the clamour to reshape the debate in London.

Something to think about when you head to the polling station.


Simon Usherwood is Reader in Politics at the University of Surrey and Deputy Director of the “UK in a Changing Europe” programme. He tweets @Usherwood.

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