Any European Parliament elections will be bitter, divisive and fraught. But Remainers will have to campaign with all they've got.
Let’s be honest: few but the geekiest among us has been genuinely excited by European Parliament elections in the past. That may be about to change.
Theresa May has written to European Council president Donald Tusk again requesting a Brexit extension – this time to the end of June.
Tusk is likely to counter by offering a ‘flexible’ 12 month extension (the horrendously named ‘flextension’). But whichever of the two options goes ahead, our participation in European Parliament elections this May is becoming inevitable.
Parties are getting prepared now. On Thursday, LabourList reported that Labour has ramped up preparations for European parliamentary elections, by agreeing a process for selecting its MEP candidates. The Green Party will be announcing their candidates in the next couple of weeks, with some regions having already declared their lists. The Lib Dems are already effectively in campaigning mode. The SNP (2 MEPs) and Plaid Cymru (1) will be keen to capitalise on a Remainer surge. . .
Parliament opposes no deal (as demonstrated in the rapid passage of Yvette Cooper’s bill on Wednesday in the Commons). Even Theresa May is reported to have spoken out against no deal in her discussion with Corbyn. So short of May and Corbyn coming to a very rapid agreement – and getting it signed off by the EU in the next week – an extension is now essential to stop a no-deal Brexit happening.
The UK government has accepted that any extension past May 22nd requires us to take part in European Parliament elections (indeed, the Electoral Commission is already preparing, as it must).
The campaign starts, well, ages ago. And while we love to obsess over process here, the message Remainers put forward in any EP elections could dramatically shape this country’s future.
In lieu of a General Election, EP elections will be thelitmus test of where public opinion now stands on Brexit.
As the People’s Vote campaign mildly puts it today, “the pro-Europeans who use the opportunity to make a positive case for the UK in the EU could do very well out of them.”
EP elections have never really been taken seriously in the UK. They have been a mid-term protest opportunity for the most disgruntled core of voters. UKIP came first in 2014. While the party is now falling apart, both they and Farage’s new Brexit Party will do all they can to capitalise on a feeling of ‘elite betrayal’. Make no mistake, they’ll be planning now, too.
Among many conundrums faced by Remainers is this: many pro-EU Brits only became proudly pro-European after the referendum. We took our membership for granted.
Visit nearly any other Europeam country and you find EU flags flown with pride. Yet in the UK we realised our European identity too late.
Perhaps, though, it’s not too late after all. Recent demonstrations have shown a new passion has been ignited: a British-European identity that was muted before.
European elections will be nasty, divisive, fraught. But they are also a chance for Remainers to fly the EU flag with pride. Indeed, to be on the front foot for the first time in a long time.
I’m British and European – and there are millions who feel the same. It may be time for us to show it.
Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.
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