The following article is part of a series of election previews for the EU-28 ahead of the European elections on 23-26 May.
The UK was not supposed to contest this month’s European elections, but Theresa May’s government finally bowed to the inevitable on Tuesday (8 May), conceding that the legislation needed to formalise Brexit will not have been passed by UK lawmakers before May 23.
The polls will serve as a proxy for a second referendum and current polling suggests a near 50-50 split between pro-Brexit and Remain parties.
Pro-Brexit forces appear to be coalescing around Nigel Farage’s recently formed Brexit party, which is widely expected to top the poll and grab around 30% of the vote.
UKIP, Farage’s former party which dominated the vote in 2014, are polling at 6% and face the prospect of losing all their seats.
Theresa May’s Conservative party is polling at 13% and will run the most muted of campaigns. Three out of every five Tory party activists say they will vote for Farage’s party.
Things are more complicated on the pro-Remain side, where the vote appears set to fragment. The Liberal Democrat and Green parties were the big winners in local elections on May 2 and both will expect to claim around 10% in the EU elections.
So, too, will the centrist Change UK party, formed by a group of eleven MPs who defected from Labour and the Conservatives. Change UK’s lead candidates include BBC presenter Gavin Esler, former Polish finance minister Jan Rostowski, and Rachel Johnson, sister of ‘Leave’ campaign front-man, and wannabe Prime Minister, Boris.
The question is whether votes are more important than seats.
“Having a large swathe of Remain parties will help maximize their vote,” said Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank.
The Conservatives rightly fear a bruising defeat on May 23, but Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party will suffer too, largely because of its equivocation over whether to support a second referendum, which will lead to many of its supporters – most of whom back UK membership of the EU – voting for a more overtly pro-Remain party. Labour officials warn privately that their polling data points to a poorer result than official surveys.
Labour will officially launch their campaign on Thursday (9 May). The Tories are unlikely to hold a launch.
Surveys suggest that turnout will be between 40% and 50%, comfortably the highest since the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979.
Despite their apparently limited prospects as MEPs, there are more high-profile candidates than ever before.
For the Brexit party, Farage is joined by former Tory veteran Ann Widdecombe and former Marxist pundit, Claire Fox, as the party seeks to avoid being pigeon-holed as a far-right movement as UKIP was.
Meanwhile, former Labour cabinet minister Andrew Adonis has a good chance of being elected in the South-West region, while Eloise Todd, a former Socialist group official in the European Parliament now heading up the anti-Brexit ‘Best for Britain’ campaign group, is likely to join veteran Brussels-insider Richard Corbett, representing Yorkshire and the Humber.
No focus on EU power games
The preoccupation with Brexit, and the fact that the UK is still set to formally leave the EU on 31 October, means that talk of political groups, European Parliament coalition, and the next European Commission is almost non-existent.
The leader of the European liberal group (ALDE), Guy Verhofstadt, will join the Liberal Democrats on the campaign trail but there are currently no plans for other European party group leaders to join their UK sister parties.
Change UK would naturally fit with the ALDE group, in which the Liberal Democrats are already members, but Gavin Esler, lead candidate for Change UK in London, told EURACTIV his party was focusing on “getting Brexit fixed, otherwise the rest doesn’t matter”.
“We honestly haven’t thought about it much. It depends on how many MEPs we get elected,” he added.
Esler said Change UK would also be following the performance of French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en marche, commenting that “they are an insurgent party like us.”
That doesn’t mean that UK lawmakers are ignoring the Spitzenkandidaten campaign, but they are looking on without taking part.
At a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday (8 May), Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, told MPs on the Exiting the EU committee that none of the Spitzenkandidaten were likely to claim the Commission presidency.
He added that Vestager, Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde and Mark Rutte were the possible candidates that would be most naturally sympathetic to the UK.
For his part, Sir Jonathan Faull, a former senior European Commission official, told lawmakers that UK MEPs would have “very considerable influence” over the next Commission.
He added that a strong Labour performance, combined with Hungary’s Fidesz party leaving the centre-right EPP group, could put the Socialists close to being the largest party group, potentially helping Frans Timmermans’ bid for the Commission presidency.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]