Brexit: the EU Elections Edition

With the UK originally supposed to have withdrawn from the EU prior, the 2019 elections for the European Parliament (EP) were supposed to represent a fresh start for the Union. This was not the case, however. The Brexit process has dragged on, and, for now, it seems that it will last until October 2019. This blog analyses the latest EU election results in the context of Brexit, providing insight into popular opinion in the UK on Brexit, and how election results in the UK impact the configuration of political groups in the EP.

2019 Seat allocation – Brexit had its toll in the UK

The UK, alongside the Netherlands, was the first country to hold the EP elections, doing so on 23 May 2019. Despite the continuing Brexit process, turnout was higher than it was in 2014. The UK’s 73 seats in the EP were allocated in the following manner: the Brexit Party – 29 (31.69%), the Liberal-Democrats – 16 (18.53%), the Labour Party – 10 (14.08%), the Greens – 7 (11.1%), the Conservative Party – 4 (8.68%), the Scottish National Party (SNP) – 3 (3.34%), the Party of Wales – 1 (1.73%), Sinn Fein (SF) – 1 (0.63%), the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – 1 (0.59%), the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (AII) – 1 (0.5%). Meanwhile, the UKIP (3.56%), and the Change UK (2.92%) parties did not manage to take any seats.

Just by looking at the numbers it becomes clear who were the winners and the losers. Namely, Nigel Farage’s newly founded Brexit Party (after stealing the show from the UKIP leadership) won big. Victories were also recorded by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, whereas Labour and the Tories suffered major losses, illustrating UK citizens’ discontentment with the handling of Brexit by the two major blocs. Therefore, even though the UK will contribute to the growing number of Eurosceptics in the EP, the growth of these elements should not be overestimated, as pro-EU forces, like the Lib Dems and the Greens, also had significant gains.

On the aggregate level, the UK election data can be classified into pro-Brexit and Remainer camps. The former mostly consist of Eurosceptics that voted for the Brexit Party, the UKIP, and the DUP: as such, they won 35.84% of the votes. The latter consist of pro-EU voters that voted for the LDP, the Greens, the SNP, the Party of Wales, SF, and the AII: as such, they won 38.75% of votes. Furthermore, if the Conservative votes are added to the pro-Brexit camp, and Labour votes included with the camp backing a second referendum, these camps would respectively have 44.53% and 53.55% of votes.

Nevertheless, realities within Labour and the Tories are not so simple, as these parties are strongly divided amongst themselves on Brexit. For this reason, only one conclusion can be drawn – even though the Brexit party came out on top in the EU elections, it would be an exaggeration to say that the pro-Brexit camp won altogether. In fact, these results only illustrate that UK citizens are still divided on this key issue, and that it would be hard to predict how they would vote in a potential second referendum.

Impact of Brexit on the European Parliament

After the 2019 EP elections, the Brexit Party became the largest party in the European Parliament, alongside the German CDU/CSU. The question remains as to how the party will operate in terms of EU political group membership, as Farage’s political group – the EFDD (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy) – does not seem to have the numbers it needs. For a political group to be formed in the European Parliament, it needs to have members from at least seven member states. For the time being, it seems that the EFDD does not fulfil this requirement. Without membership in any of the political groups in the EP, the impact of Brexit Party will be rather limited.

Alternatively, however, the Brexit Party could join Matteo Salvini’s Eurosceptic alliance (EAPN – European Alliance for People and Nations, which is a development from ENF – Europe of Nations and Freedom). If this happens, Eurosceptics in the EP would become stronger and more united than ever before. Yet, as Farage and Salvini, inter alia, have diverging stances on Russia, it remains uncertain whether the Brexit party would join. Whatever the case may be, the Brexit Party, with its key goal of advocating for a hard Brexit (means its actions will be short-term oriented), will be a lonely player in the EP. If its goal becomes a reality and the UK leaves the EU by October, this will consequently mean an effective end of the Brexit Party in the EP. At the EU level, therefore, the actions of the Brexit Party can be seen as self-destructive.

Another party which did surprisingly well in the EP elections was the Liberal Democrats, who used the dissatisfaction caused by Brexit to return to the political stage. With its number of seats, it has become, in fact, the second largest party (alongside Emmanuel Macron in France) in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group (ALDE), and thus an influential partner. As such, the Lib Dems have partially contributed to the wider rise of liberals in the EU. After these elections, the ALDE has become the third largest political group in the EP (while previously being the fourth), allowing it to take upon itself the role of “kingmaker” in terms of providing a majority in the EP and in choosing the next president of the European Commission. Hence, even though the head of ALDE in the EP, Guy Verhofstadt, had warned against the idea of providing an extension for the Brexit process until October, his political group has, in fact, largely benefited from the UK’s participation in the EP elections.

The defeat of the two major blocs in the UK impacts their political groups in the EP as well. Namely, the Labour Party has become only a mid-weight party in its group, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), after having lost almost half of its seats. Having been one of the core members of the S&D prior to Brexit, this represents a significant defeat for Labour. Nevertheless, as every vote counts, the S&D still profit from Labour’s participation in the 2019 elections. Despite significant losses, the socialists have remained the second largest political group in the EP, and it is certain that without Labour, the S&D would have a weaker position in the EP.

When it comes to the Conservative Party and its group – the European Conservative and Reformists (ECR), the fact that the Tories have lost staggering 80% of their seats would have serious consequences. As such, the Tories have effectively become a party of low-level importance in the EP. As David Cameron, one-time leader of the Conservatives, was the original founder of the ECR, the historic defeat of the Tories represents a major blow both for the Conservative Party and the ECR. Consequently, it is expected that the influence exerted by the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) will increase, as it has become, by far, the largest party in the ECR, as well as the fourth largest party in the EP at large, with 26 seats. In any case, even though the ECR was the third largest political group in the EP between 2014 and 2019, it will now be resigned to a lesser position, as it has been outperformed this time by the ALDE, the Greens/EFA and the EAPN.

Finally, the Greens in the UK had an astounding 250% rise in their share of the UK vote. In fact, the UK EP elections represented the third best performance of the Greens in the whole of the EU, largely benefitting the Greens/EFA political group in the EP. Such a performance has contributed to the notion that a “Green wave” is underway throughout Europe, with such parties expected to play a bigger role in the coming years of the EP.

What after Brexit?

When, and if, the UK eventually leaves the EU, the composition of the EP will necessarily change. Back in February 2018, the EP voted on a resolution which was supposed to re-settle its configuration in the context of Brexit. It was agreed that the number of seats of the EP would shrink from 751 to 705, with the rest of the UK seats reserved for future enlargements.

In the post-Brexit European Parliament, the Eurosceptics, in general, would have the most to lose. Yet, as the Brexit Party does not belong to the Salvini’s alliance, the latter will likely hold its ground as it is. Nevertheless, after the withdrawal of the UK’s MEPs, the socialists, liberals, greens, and conservatives are expected to lose some seats. The EPP, however, would remain unhurt, as there is no Christian-Democratic party in the UK.

Overall, with or without the UK, the Eurosceptics will remain far from constituting a blocking majority in the European Parliament. As the MEPs from the UK are almost equally divided into Eurosceptic and pro-EU political groups, the balance of power in the EP is thus likely to remain unchanged after the UK leaves the union.