What the EU elections mean for Brexit
May 29, 2019
The dust has settled from the world’s biggest multi-country election, and the European Union’s political landscape looks a bit different than it has in the past.
From May 23 to May 26, citizens from the EU’s 28 member countries had the opportunity to vote for their representatives at the European Parliament.
This year’s election process, which saw the highest voter turnout in 20 years, had been labeled as a pivotal moment for the EU, largely because the bloc has been contending with a surge in popularity for nationalist and populist groups.
But aside from deciding the structure of the European Parliament for the next five years, the results also have considerable consequences for individual countries, particularly the UK. The outcome will almost certainly influence who is selected as the new British prime minister after Theresa May steps down on June 7. And that will have implications for Brexit.
Meaning an election process the UK wasn’t initially supposed to participate in, could have a significant impact on the country’s future.
Here’s a look at what happened and what might lie ahead.
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What is the European Parliament?
The European Parliament is one of three institutions responsible for legislating across the bloc. The other two are the Council of the European Union and the European Commission.
The European Commission is the only body that can propose laws. The European Parliament and Council of the EU are tasked with voting on or amending draft legislation, which affects more than 500 million people across the bloc.
The European Parliament is the only EU institution elected directly by citizens.
There are 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) representing the 28 member countries of the bloc. Seats are allocated according to each country’s population size. For example, Malta, Cyprus, and Luxembourg each have six seats, while Germany has 96.
The UK, which had to participate in these elections because it has not yet left the EU, has 73 seats. Once the UK exits the bloc, 27 of its seats will be redistributed to other countries. The remaining 46 seats will be reserved for future new members of the bloc.
It’s important to note that the European Parliament is organized by political affiliation, not nationality. There are currently eight political groupings in the chamber.
The new European Parliament will have its first meeting at the beginning of July.
Results of the EU elections
The elections brought a few surprises that will change the dynamic of the European Parliament’s chamber.
For the first time since the elections began in 1979, the traditional center-left and center-right parties will not hold the majority of seats together. The “grand coalition” – consisting of the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and the European People’s Party on the center-right – lost more than 70 seats.
Many voters instead turned to smaller political groups like the Greens and liberals.
The number of populist MEPs also increased, taking about 25% of the seats up from approximately 20% five years ago. But initial expectations that the elections would bring a massive tidal wave of far-right support didn’t fully pan out. Still, the overall results indicate that citizens across the bloc are dissatisfied with traditional political parties.
On that trend, some of the most noteworthy results were in the UK.
And there’s no question that in the UK, people were voting based on Brexit.
The country’s new Brexit Party took the top spot with more than 30%. The party, which officially registered in February 2019, campaigns for a withdrawal from the EU and endorses a no-deal Brexit (though they use the term “clean break”). It now has 29 of the UK’s 73 seats in the European Parliament.
To complicate things further, anti-Brexit parties also made substantial gains, with the Liberal Democrats, a “remain” party, coming in second with around 20%. The party was previously represented by just a single MEP and will now fill 16 seats.
Meanwhile, support for the governing Conservatives plummeted and slipped the party into fifth place with just 8.85% of the vote, their worst electoral performance since 1832. The Labour Party, the official opposition, came in third. The party rankings undoubtedly stem voter frustrations with the prolonged (and chaotic) Brexit uncertainty.
If anything, the results prove that the UK is a nation divided over Brexit. The five explicitly pro-EU parties (the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish National Party, Change UK, and Plaid Cymru) combined earned close to 40% of the vote. The hard Brexit parties (the Brexit Party and UK Independence Party) collectively took nearly 35%.
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What the results mean for Brexit
The polarized results mean the Brexit chaos could worsen before anyone has an idea on the way forward out of the mess.
The election outcome will undoubtedly have an influence on the leadership race to replace May. And given the popularity of the Brexit Party in the EU elections, there is much speculation that the winning successor will be a hard Brexiteer.
In fact, two of the leading candidates to replace May, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, have both declared that Brexit must happen as scheduled on October 31, with or without a deal.
Breaking the Brexit deadlock
Given the thrashing the Conservatives were just handed by the electorate, they aren’t going to want to risk a repeat of that outcome and potentially dwindle their seats in the UK Parliament by calling a general election right away.
However, that could change if the new prime minister tries to move forward with a no-deal Brexit. Senior members of the Conservative Party have already indicated they would bring down their own government to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Such a move would trigger a general election.
But a general election didn’t hold a lot of promise for the Conservatives before the EU elections and even less so now. So, a second referendum may be used to help break the deadlock that has plagued Brexit.
“Of course we want a general election, but realistically after [the European election results] … there aren’t many Tory MPs who’re going to vote for a general election,” Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the BBC. “It would be like turkeys voting for Christmas, so our best way of doing that is going back to the people in a referendum.”
Following his party’s disappointing performance in the EU elections, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he would support a “public vote” on any Brexit deal. But as The Guardian reports, Corbyn’s stance “does not go quite far enough to satisfy the demands of those in the party who want full backing for a second referendum to be held without delay – and a commitment that the party will campaign on the remain side.”
What does all of this mean for Brexit? It means the EU elections have brought even more division to the already polarized UK Parliament, and that the Brexit stalemate is likely to continue.
Amongst all the chaos only one thing is really clear: UK citizens want an end to the Brexit uncertainty.
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