Why #EP2019 had the potential to be a lot more interesting

This post first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on April 16th 2019. 

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Last week Brussels gave Theresa May six more months to sort out Brexit. They could have given her a Tardis, a Stargate and Boris Johnson’s weight in dilithium crystals and she still couldn’t do it.

Time is not May’s problem – it is authority and trust. She has squandered both putting the unity of the Tory party before everything else.

Along with their six-month gift came a poison chalice. The UK now must hold European elections on May 23. Not that anyone had any choice.

The law is quite clear, perhaps because it was drafted with this contingency in mind. If Britain is still an EU member state when the European elections are underway, then it must participate. If it didn’t, the UK would have to leave the EU without a deal on June 1st otherwise there could be legal challenge to the validity of the next EU Parliament’s mandate.

It is a mess, but hasn’t everything about Brexit proven itself a complete and utter mess?

The UK having to hold European election will have several impacts, in the UK, EU and here.

The biggest impact, not surprisingly, will be in the U.K. itself as voters assumed they wouldn’t be voting in them again. Yet they will. This is 99% certain as the EU Council decision granting the six-month extension says:

“…the withdrawal should take place on the first day of the month following the completion of the ratification procedures or on 1 November 2019, whichever is the earliest.”

So, even if May and Corbyn were to reach agreement today, it is nigh impossible to have the ratification process completed in two weeks and allow the UK to depart on May 1st, just one day before the UK holds local elections. Though there are probably some poor souls working feverishly in cubicles in Number 10 and the Brexit Dept still trying to find a way to do it in time.

A YouGov poll of European Parliament voting intentions shows no single party getting above 25%. Labour leads the pack with 24%, next comes the Tories with a paltry 16%, followed by Nigel Farage’s latest political covering: the Brexit Party on 15% and his old used sheath, UKIP, on 14%.

Meanwhile the rest of main parties, all of whom are firmly anti Brexit, the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Liberal Democrats, the new Change UK Party and the Greens, get about 6-8% each.

Aggregated, the pro Brexit faction (UKIP and Brexit Party) are at 29% while the anti-Brexit one (comprised SNP, Plaid Cymru, LibDems ChangeUk and Greens) are also, shock, horror, on 29%. The Leavers and Remainers are deadlocked.

While the two main parties have lost ground to both, it is the Tories who have lost most – by a long way, meanwhile Labour’s contracted base leans heavily to Remain.

As British political commentator Andrew Rawnsley pointed out in Sunday’s Observer, the Brexit debacle has ironically resulted in mobilising the most motivated pro-EU UK voter base in decades.

A chunk of this resurgent pro EU base is voting Labour, which leaves Corbyn in a bind. Just like Theresa May, he too worries about Brexit dividing his party, and just like May he could be about to learn that it is a battle he can neither avoid nor win.

This makes Corbyn just as anxious about European elections as Theresa May.

Meanwhile voters here and around the rest of the EU 27 will be going to the polls at the end of May, the question though is in what numbers?

Right now, with just over six weeks to go, polls point to the two big political blocs in the European Parliament: the European People’s Party (EPP) to which Fine Gael is aligned; and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) to which what is left of the Irish Labour party belongs, both set to lose 40-45 seats each.

For decades these two parties dominated the European Parliament. Together they held 66% of the seats during the 1999-2004 mandate. This fell to around 55% last time and – if the polls are correct – it will drop down to just 45% this time.

This would be big shift in the parliament’s centre of gravity. One of the main beneficiaries would be Fianna Fáil’s EU political grouping: Alde, led by Guy Verhofstadt. It hopes to pick up an extra 30 or more seats, with Michéal Martin hoping that his party will be responsible for at least 3 of these gains.

So, what about the rest of the shift? The more diplomatic Brussels observers say the next parliament will be “more fragmented” with an increase in representation from “new political forces at both ends of the political spectrum”.

Less diplomatic ones say there will be 50 or more new looney tune and buck-eejit MEPs from fringe parties of the far left and far right, think Ming Flanagan, Gemma O’Doherty, Peter Casey or Hermann Kelly with Italian, Finnish or Polish accents, plus a big contingent of slightly less flaky Eurosceptics and populists.

The Italian Deputy Prime Minister Salvini and his La Lega party is hoping to bring other far right parties from Denmark, Austria, Finland, Germany and Estonia together into an Alliance, but Brexit is having an impact on them and the alliance exists more in his head than on the ballot paper.

It is a long way from the contagion of countries demanding to leave the EU that Farage, or his minions here in the guise of Irlexit, fantasised about. If anything, the trend is now in the opposite direction.

Having seen the chaos and mayhem that Brexit has wrought on Britain, even arch European Eurosceptics like Salvini and Le Pen now avoid any talk of taking their countries out of the EU and speak instead of reforming Europe from the inside, with Salvini championing a “vision of Europe for the next 50 years”.

Not even Trump’s one-time strategist Steve Bannon has been able to unify Eurosceptics and God knows he has tried.

Who’d have guessed that it would tough to unite European anti-Europe parties opposed to the European Union into a united anti-Europe front to urge leaving the European union?

Cleary Farage and Bannon didn’t.

Not that all the recent political shifts in Europe have been away from moderates. Last month’s Slovakian presidential election saw Zuzana Čaputová of the pro-European Progressive Slovakia party win 58% of the vote in the second round, while in Poland show the recently formed Koalicja Europejska (European Coalition) which includes Donald Tusk’s former party, running neck and neck with Kaczyński’s populist, right wing Law and Justice party.

So, what is the impact in Ireland? Besides a possible increase in turnout, given the centrality of Brexit, the counts may turn out to be a Tallyman’s wet dream.

Brexit was supposed to see two of the UK’s EU Parliament seats being given to Ireland. To allow for these two extra MEPs being able to take up their seats in October, assuming Brexit happens, the counts in Dublin and South which were each supposed to gain one seat will likely be run twice.

First, on the basis of the old configurations – 3 seats in Dublin and 4 seats in South and then again, with the extra seat each, as 4 and 5 seaters. This allows the extra two MEPs to take their seats later, after the UK formally leaves the EU and its MEPs withdraw.

A few close-run eliminations or tight declarations and Dublin or South could end up challenging the 1992 10-day recount record between Ben Briscoe and Eric Byrne, or The Agony and the Ex TD as Ben later described it.

There are other implications I could explore, but time and space dictate that I leave that over until next week.

In the meantime, I advise folks to keep a close eye on what happens in the Europeans in Northern Ireland. While it is a racing certainty that the first two seats with go to the DUP and Sinn Féin, the third seat is the one to watch.

Traditionally the North goes 2 Unionist, 1 Nationalist. Its been the way since the first direct EU elections in 1979 – but can Brexit change that? Will Northern Ireland voters who rejected Brexit by 56-44 in 2016 be happy to send two pro Brexit MEPs to Brussels? Even if only for a few weeks or months?

Watch this space, it may be about to get a lot more interesting.

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