The thorn in Europe's side:

why Britain will trouble the EU for years to come

By DAVID KIRKHAM | May 23, 2019

The European elections are finally upon us. Over 370 million Europeans will be eligible to vote in what is one of the largest democratic contests in the world, second to India’s. That is, if Europeans actually turn up at the polls.

Historically, turnout at European elections has been poor, especially when compared to their national counterparts. Just 42 percent of registered voters went to the polls in the 2014 European elections. Youth participation is particularly disappointing: here in the Netherlands, only 18 percent of young people voted in the last elections – in France, considered to be one of the birthplaces of modern democracy, only a quarter of young people voted.

But to most people’s amazement (or bewilderment), these numbers will receive a substantial boost from the ranks of the 45 million registered voters of the UK, despite failing to leave the EU in March (or in April). However, before Remainers get too hopeful, it’s important to note that the largest share of these votes are projected to go to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, which is polling around an alarming 30 percent, nearly 10 points ahead of its closest competitor, Labour.

The only solace is that this will likely come at the expense of the Conservative party, and Theresa May’s increasingly fragile grip on power. The British Prime Minister recently announced a resignation timetable if she fails to get her Brexit deal through parliament in June. This sparked a long line of Tory leadership hopefuls to announce their intentions to replace May, including – to no one’s surprise – former Foreign Secretary and Brexit campaigner, Boris Johnson.

Admittedly, the cards have been drawn for Britain’s PM for some time. Although May appeared to recover from the disastrous 2017 general election, in which she threw away her party’s parliamentary majority, her credibility reached a new low last December following a vote of no confidence, which saw her abandoned by more than half of the Conservative backbenchers not serving in her government. Since then, May’s authority has crumbled: she failed to get her Brexit deal through parliament a record three times, and was forced to beg the EU for an extension on Brexit, not once but twice.

And here we are. With Brexit delayed until October 31st (Halloween: how fitting) and the UK still very much a part of the EU, the country is legally bound to hold European elections like everyone else.

The UK’s involvement in these elections may be seen as just a distraction, another failure on the part of May’s government. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether any of Britain’s MEPs will even bother to make the journey to Brussels before the UK leaves the EU. But with the likelihood that Theresa May will fail – for a fourth time – to get her deal through the House of Commons next month, ironically, UK MEPs may end up having an important say in the critical first months of the new European Parliament.

British MEPs could have a significant role in the formation of the European Parliament’s transnational political groups: an influx of Brexit Party MEPs may have a marked boost for the right-wing bloc, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), joining ranks with fellow anti-EU and populist politicians from across Europe. On the other hand, the long established centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, may significantly benefit from the support of UK Labour MEPs, as they did in 2014.

Above all, British MEPs could be pivotal in the election of the next European Commission (the executive branch of the EU), as well as the successor to president Jean-Claude Juncker. This ultimately means that British MEPs may have a significant impact on the institutional composition on the next European Parliament and Commission, long past their supposed exodus. Even if the party blocs reject UK MEPs from their ranks, their ballots will still be counted and potentially end up swaying decisions. Votes being counted and having actual impact? It’s almost as if the EU is actually democratic!

So, to the disdain of many of Britain’s European counterparts, who are clearly fed up with Brexit and would like to get on with far more important issues (such as the impending climate armageddon), it looks like the UK will continue to be the thorn in Europe’s side, kicking and screaming as it drags itself out of the EU, for the months, and probably years, to come.

David Kirkham is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.

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