The UK has been catapulted into a rather unusual position as a result of the latest Article 50 extension. The European parliament election, which is typically characterised by low turn out and its treatment as a second order event, has suddenly become a hot topic.
It now seems inevitable that the UK will be taking part in the vote this May. The government appears to acknowledge as much, having put in place the legislation needed to set the “appointed day of poll” as May 23. The only way out is for British members of parliament to swiftly approve Theresa May’s Brexit deal – and they’ve already rejected it three times.
There is not much time to get campaigns rolling. But one party was very quick out of the blocks – Nigel Farage’s newly launched Brexit Party.
Frustrated by the lack of progress on Brexit, Farage is threatening to stack the European parliament with eurosceptic MEPs forming a destructive Trojan horse. The aim seems to be for these MEPs to do what they can to disrupt EU business in some kind of protest against being held in the EU against their will.
But EU leaders apparently saw this coming. When they met at the European Council to agree to extend Brexit until October 31, they included an unusual caveat. This stipulates that the UK must behave itself during the time in between the election and its departure from the EU. In particular, the council said it expected the UK “to act in a constructive and responsible manner throughout the extension” and to “refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives”.
In some ways, this was rather redundant – the duty to “sincerely cooperate” with the EU and other member states is in fact a legal duty. Enforcing that commitment might be another matter. It would get quite complicated and nightmarish trying to challenge an uncooperative UK. How do you sanction a state that intends to leave anyway?
But in any case, there are limited opportunities to actually obstruct EU activity in the time available to Farage and friends. Sabotage through the ballot box might, therefore, not be the best use of a vote. The European parliament is unlikely to decide on many material matters in the months following an election, and if it does, it will do so by majority. Even if one party won all of the 73 European parliament seats allocated to the UK, it would be a long way short of dominating the 751-seat strong parliament.
But the make-up of UK seats could influence the position the UK takes in the European council, which is made up of national ministers who will have an eye on domestic politics. The UK membership may wish to avoid being seen to frustrate the will of the electorate expressed through these elections. This might make obstruction more feasible.
The council, along with the European parliament, is the main decision-making body in the EU. In the coming months, these bodies are due to make various important decisions. Take, for example, a draft directive on transparent and predictable working conditions. These would limit probation periods and require employers to give more notice to employees in on-demand work about when they will be expected to be available.
Even if the UK pushed back as a council member, most matters – including this proposed directive – are decided by a qualified majority. The UK would only be able to obstruct if it ended up casting the deciding vote.
As Steve Peers, a professor in the University of Essex’s School of Law, points out, the UK could block everything where it has a veto, which is the case in a few select areas of law, like defence policy and treaty amendment.
But first, the chances of such areas being considered any time soon are slight, and second, as Peers argues, member states might sidestep that problem by only agreeing on initiatives in principle, then enacting them once the UK is out of the way. And for some actions, it has been suggested that the EU 27 could get creative and use the rules on “enhanced cooperation” that sometimes allow groups of some member states to work together on certain measures without including everyone.
EU nationals (finally) get to have a say
It’s fairly clear that troublemaking within the European parliament is probably futile. But it is not clear what can be actually achieved in five months of parliamentary representation for the UK. And that’s bad news for the mainstream parties, as it will be difficult to articulate how they would actually represent their constituents.
What can Conservative and Labour realistically offer in their manifestos? What will they propose on the campaign trail about what they intend to do in parliament if briefly elected? The primary role of an MEP is playing a part in the EU legislative process – but they are unlikely to be in a position to shape the legislative agenda, or have much influence on what are often quite lengthy law-making processes.
What this vote does offer is a voice to EU nationals in the UK. In the run up to the 2016 referendum, EU citizens were guaranteed clear and unconditional protection of their rights, by leading Vote Leave campaigners. But those same citizens did not get a referendum vote, and have lived in limbo ever since, with their rights constantly under threat.
In May’s elections, EU nationals are entitled to vote in their state of residence. With 2-3m adult EU nationals living in the UK, the Brexit Party will not have a monopoly on discontent.