Written by: Chris Stafford, Doctoral Researcher, University of Nottingham
The European Elections weren’t supposed to involve the UK. But the UK is still a member of the EU, having failed to agree a Brexit deal, so it is obliged to hold elections for the European Parliament. Excluding the possibility of a vote to remain in a confirmatory referendum, any MEPs sent to the European Parliament by the UK will have very little time, if any, to influence European policy.
As a result, much of this vote will be based on sending messages to Westminster and for many it has become a proxy for a second referendum. Those who still want to leave the European Union have lots of options on May 23 but many will find it a difficult choice. The perceived failures of the Conservative Party are forcing Brexit supporters to consider fringe, populist parties over the established ones.
The Brexit Party
Despite only being formally established at the beginning of the year, the Brexit Party is predicted to be the big winner at the European elections. Founded by Nigel Farage and other breakaway UKIP MEPs, the party supports leaving the European Union without a deal and trading with the EU on WTO terms until a suitable deal can be struck. The party has no manifesto. The leadership says it will publish one after the vote.
Pros: Rather than championing specific policies, the Brexit Party’s main function is to serve a as protest option. If your main goal is to send a strong message to the major political parties and you aren’t too concerned what the specifics of that message are, then the Brexit Party may well be a valid vote choice for you.
Cons: If you are concerned about a specific aspect of Brexit, such as the backstop or freedom of movement, and want to send more than a blunt statement, the lack of a manifesto means that you don’t really know what you are voting for policywise. And, without a manifesto, the party will have limited accountability to you after the election. There are also serious doubts about the viability of trading on WTO terms.
Having won the most votes in the 2014 European elections in the UK, the outlook doesn’t look as bright for the party this time around. Since the 2016 referendum, UKIP seems to have lost its identity. A series of internal disputes, notably between current leader Gerard Batten and Nigel Farage, have dogged the party. However, as long as the UK remains in the EU, UKIP arguably still has a purpose.
UKIP’s central policy for Brexit is not all that dissimilar from the Brexit Party’s, although it is more fleshed out and actually written down in a manifesto. UKIP argues that the UK should leave without a deal and then either offer to trade with the EU on a tariff-free basis or on WTO terms, with reciprocal rights for citizens.
Pros: If you don’t want to support one of the major parties with your vote, but you also want to send more than just a blunt protest message, UKIP’s more clearly defined policies regarding Brexit may be a better option for you than the Brexit Party, especially if you want some accountability for policies after the election.
Cons: UKIP has been dogged by infighting for some time now and the party has lost its momentum as of late. Accusations of it lurching further to the right and associations with former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson may be off-putting for some voters. And, much as with the Brexit Party’s proposed Brexit solutions, there are serious doubts about their viability.
Much like the local elections just a few weeks ago, the Conservatives are expected to take a beating at the European elections. Even its own party members and elected representatives have claimed they will not be campaigning for the party – or even voting for it. Party leader Theresa May had hoped to avoid holding these elections altogether so there is no manifesto. Instead, the Conservatives have sent an election leaflet to most households claiming that a vote for the party will send a message that you want the UK to leave with a deal and you want it to leave with it now.
Pros: If you want the UK to leave the EU with a deal and you have had enough of the lack of progress being made in Westminster, then a vote for the Conservatives would send a strong message to this effect.
Cons: If you don’t like the proposed withdrawal deal then the Conservatives aren’t really offering you anything aside from that. Moreover, given how unpopular the deal is in Westminster, even by sending this message, there is still no guarantee parliament will accept it.
Although many Labour supporters have been calling for a second referendum, the party leadership itself has remained committed to leaving the EU and has been hesitant to support a confirmatory referendum, to the disappointment of many. The party has a much broader and more ambitious manifesto for the European campaign than the other parties and it effectively reads like a draft for their next general election manifesto.
Labour continues to promote its own alternative plan for Brexit – a comprehensive customs union with the EU. This is a much closer relationship than that being proposed by the Conservative leadership. There are provisions for a second referendum, but only if the government tries to leave without a deal and it can’t secure support for its plan or a general election.
Pros: If you support leaving the EU with a deal, but don’t much care for the one currently on offer or can’t bring yourself to vote Conservative, then Labour’s alternative plan may be worth your support.
Cons: Many within the Labour Party want to see a second referendum, and although there are a few caveats that need to be met first, it is still a possibility that Labour could possibly support this in the future. Additionally, while Labour’s Brexit plan is ambitious, there is no real consensus that it is achievable.
If you live in Northern Ireland and are pro-Brexit there is another option. Despite its agreement to prop up the Conservative government, the DUP has repeatedly refused to support the prime minister’s proposed Brexit deal.
The DUP wants to ensure that all of the UK leaves on the same terms, thus protecting the union. Party leaders have warned that if Northern Ireland doesn’t support the DUP in the European elections, Westminster will interpret the vote as a rejection of Brexit.
Pros: For those voters in Northern Ireland who are concerned about the backstop and the stability of the union, a vote for the DUP will send a message to that effect.
Cons: While it is fairly clear what the DUP is opposed to, it doesn’t really present a clear and viable alternative. So while a vote for the DUP may signal what you don’t want, it won’t provide an endorsement for any alternatives.
Chris Stafford does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.