“Still here?” has been the standard comment I’ve received from fellow MEPs from across the European Union over the last few weeks in both Brussels and Strasbourg. Usually it’s delivered in a tone of bemusement and humour, but there’s an irritation lurking there too for Brexit has eaten deep into European Parliamentary time to the exclusion of other, they could argue, more important issues.
While we’ve been preparing to leave the EU, our fellow MEPs from across Europe have been preparing for European elections. To them Brexit is a sideshow to the business of contesting and hopefully winning seats in the 2019-2024 European Parliament. A parliament that could well see a reduced number of seats for both main political groups; the European People’s Party (EPP) who are mainstream pro EU conservatives (think Angela Merkel) and the pro EU Socialists and Democrats (S&D), to which Labour MEPs belong. Likely to do well in comparison are many of the smaller political groupings including the Greens but also, alas, the parties of the far right, some of whom are quite simply fascists.
In Italy the deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini is trying to build across the EU an alliance of far right parties to contest in a co-ordinated way their approach to the elections and beyond. As it stands, the far right are not unified but they have a foothold in Poland, Hungary and Austria and expect to do well elsewhere, for example Alternative for Germany (AfD). A common platform of anti-immigration and the idea of a racially homogenous Europe with ever-higher border fences could be the platform they unite around. What could be further away from a progressive left wing platform than this racist and exclusionary vision?
As little as five weeks ago there was no talk amongst UK MEPs of contesting the EU elections but now, little more than a month later, many of us are candidates in an election we never thought would happen. That British politics is topsy-turvy at the moment is self-evident and it’s also contagious into the wider EU. Currently no MEPs affiliated to a UK political party sit in the EPP hence the UK now contesting the EU elections after all doesn’t appear to have any particular benefit for the EPP, unless Change UK do well and return several MEPs who then decide to sit in the EPP. That they would decide to sit in the EPP is far from clear, for many Change UK politicians would be just as happy to sit in the pro EU S&D. So, we will have to wait and see on this issue.
What is clearer though is that if, and I agree it’s an ‘if’, Labour were to do well in the EU elections and return a sizeable number of MEPs this would have the impact of potentially negating S&D losses elsewhere in the EU and in turn keeping the S&D in contention to be the largest political group in the new parliament. Being the largest group doesn’t automatically mean your candidate for President of the Commission wins through, but it does put you in poll position. For months now the presumption has been that the EPP’s Manfred Weber from Germany would land this top job and replace Jean Claude Junker when he retires at midnight on Halloween, which just so happens to be the current date on which the UK is set to leave the EU. However calculations are being recalibrated now that the UK is likely to take part in the EU elections and once again return 73 MEPs. Could this change result in the S&D candidate for the presidency Frans Timmermans from Holland winning through instead?
As a consequence I detected that some of our S&D colleagues were a little less irritated by us Brits in Strasbourg last week and a little more genuinely pleased to see us still around. The Prime Minister’s decision to ask for an extension to our continued membership of the EU has possibly brought a more socialist Europe a step nearer but that is for the voters to decide on May 23rd.