Britain after the EU Elections

Nigel Farage speaks as he and newly elected Members of the European Parliament attend a news conference following the results of the European Parliament elections, in London, Britain, May 27, 2019. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)
The Tories and Labour now both face Brexit-related identity crises.

This weekend saw the highest voter turnout in European Parliament elections since 1994 and, in Britain, tectonic shifts in party politics.

The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) lost control of the EU’s assembly for the first time, going from 401 seats (54 percent) to a projected 325 seats (43 percent). As predicted, populists and right-wing parties did well, though their victories were more thinly spread than in 2014. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally came first, with Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche in close second. Right-wing parties also won in Poland (Law and Justice), Hungary (Civic Alliance), and Italy (Lega).

Interestingly, across the continent, green parties increased their number of European seats from 52 to 67. Greens did well in the UK, Ireland, and Finland, and surprisingly came second in Germany. Some commentators are calling this trend the “Thunberg effect,” after the 16-year-old Swedish climate-change activist Greta Thunberg, as it appears to have been fueled by a high turnout of young voters whose main priority is climate change.

The domestic fallout of the elections was especially significant in Britain, where the two main political parties — Conservative and Labour — suffered humiliating defeats and are now struggling to redefine themselves.

The European elections were a national embarrassment in the U.K., precisely because Britons voted to leave the bloc in June 2016 and were supposed to have done so by March 29, 2019. The failure to pull off a timely Brexit was most likely on the minds of many as they went grudgingly to the ballot box. It helps explain why Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which is only six weeks old, won 31.6 percent of the vote, and why the Lib Dems, back from the political wilderness, came in second with 20.3 percent. Labour came third. The Tories came fifth.

This was a protest vote for many fed up with the two main parties, clearly. What is remarkable is just how many. In the aftermath of the results, the outgoing prime minister, Theresa May, said they’d showed “the importance of finding a Brexit deal,” while Jeremy Corbyn promised that he was “listening carefully.”

In order to survive, however, the Conservatives need to abandon platitudes and compete with the Farage by becoming the Brexit party. Likewise, Labour must abandon its strategic ambiguity and back Remain. Long-term, Farage has the opposite problem: He must adopt a manifesto covering a range of issues (not just Europe) if the Brexit party is to be taken seriously in the next general election.

All these changes have already begun in earnest. In the aftermath of the EU election, Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party, has stated that a “change of direction” is urgently needed. Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, stated that going into the EU elections an explicit pro-Remain strategy was a “mistake.” And John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, endorsed a second Brexit referendum.

Conservative MPs, meanwhile, are busy in the race to succeed Theresa May and have recognized that in order to be taken seriously, they must be prepared to walk away from Europe without a deal. Esther McVey, the former work and pensions secretary, told Sky News that while she would like the EU to come back and reopen the negotiations, she is not going to “waste time” waiting for that to happen and would “prepare” for an abrupt exit come October. Before the election, this position was viewed as extreme, reserved only for the likes of Boris Johnson. Now it is mainstream.

From the EU perspective, a no-deal Brexit has never looked likelier. Will this be enough to make Brussels reopen negotiations? If so, it will need to do so soon. After the next summit on June 20, the EU has a long summer and doesn’t meet again until October 17.

As for the British electorate, one (risibly) skewed way of reading the complex mesh of election data is to interpret the votes for the Brexit party and UKIP as representing the entirety of support for Leave, while votes for Labour and all other parties constitute the entirety of support for Remain. Under this view, conveniently for those who want to stop Brexit altogether, 53 percent of the British public currently favors Remain and 46 percent favors Leave.

Of course, this does not account for the Labour constituencies (for example, in the North of England) that voted Leave, and that will likely bleed more votes to the Brexit party now that Labour is positioning itself as explicitly anti-Brexit. Nor does it account for those Conservative Remain voters who continue to want to avoid a no-deal Brexit at all costs — and who will, given the increasing likelihood of that threat, perhaps begin to vote Lib Dem.

Whatever happens going forward, this weekend’s results show that Brexit will continue to be the defining factor in British politics for the foreseeable future.


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