Europe votes for its parliament
Just as the ability to have and withstand a crisis is often the test of a currency or commodity being deemed relevant, the saga of Brexit is looking like it may be helped to further the permanence of the European Union.
In voting to leave it, the UK changed the European Union in 2016, but not in the way those voters perhaps anticipated. Viewed from inside the UK, the decision to leave the bloc is mostly regarded as having unleashed a torturous process that looks increasingly unwise. Viewed from outside the country, it appears as an even less desirable course of action.
The recent results of the European Parliament elections do little to alter these conclusions. With turnout at over 50% and the highest for 25 years, more people in Europe seem to care about who represents them in the European Parliament. Even the continent’s Eurosceptics, whether Le Pen in France or Salvini in Italy, now mostly express their conservatism in terms of what the bloc represents – too much multiculturalism, immigration from outside, neoliberal economics – and less in terms of the existence of the bloc itself. A surge in support for European Greens, possibly the most coordinated political force across the continent, is also showing European politics as an obvious home for the positive version of political change that the media often sideline in favour of stories about violent, nationalist threats. In Germany, 36% of first-time voters voted Green. The far-right AfD attracted only 5% of the age group.
Just as the ability to have and withstand a crisis is often the test of a currency or commodity being deemed relevant, the saga of Brexit is looking like it may be helped to further the permanence of the European Union. Even if this is so, within the UK, any unwitting assistance it provided the European project remains small consolation. Coming out of the elections as the largest single party was the newly-founded Brexit Party, who now take 28 UK seats in the European Parliament. Despite concerted, predictable efforts to represent this as a mandate for delivering Brexit, the broader context is the electoral annihilation of the Brexit Party’s predecessor, UKIP, who lost all of their seats. The results are, as much as anything, best seen as a rebrand for the UK’s primary Eurosceptic organisation, and one that confirms Brexit as a narrow, single-issue politics incapable of sustaining more than one party at a time. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party’s collapse and the startling rise in vote share for remain-supporting positions suggests increased support for the UK remaining inside the European Union. The Labour Party, who also performed badly, is facing more pressure to clarify its support for a second referendum on that verdict.
Even the nuance of this assessment, however, should be read through an allowance that the elections saw UK turnout of 37% - higher than in past years, but still only about half the turnout of the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU. For obvious reasons, the areas of lowest turnout in these European elections were also those with highest proportions of leave votes at the 2016 referendum, where people by now never expected to be voting on the European Parliament at all. Describing these results as a clear mandate for anything, rather than a useful indication, is a risky and likely misleading game to play.
There is a further danger being contributed to by staunch remain advocates, who have taken the collective vote for nominally pro-remain parties and the collective vote for nominally pro-Brexit parties, tallied each one together to declare narrow victory for remain. Aside from the dubious methodology in such an approach to parliamentary arithmetic, this also reinforces the logic of Brexit as the central, only, and dividing issue in UK politics. Just as in a European context Brexit paradoxically strengthened the EU, arch-remainers ought to be careful to ensure that their method of resisting Brexit does not reinforce both the outcome and the divide they are seeking to dismantle.
In as much as this, the Labour Party’s ambition to provide centre ground on the EU and a confirmatory referendum remains the correct one, and the party leadership is increasingly keen to assert this as its position. Labour has handled the binary conflict of Brexit in an even-handed manner for as long as possible, and in a way that limited the capacity of the Conservatives to deliver the harder version of Brexit they might have wished for. The party’s conundrum now, however, is that many who once voted to leave the EU already see Labour as remainers, or enablers of them, while those most passionate about remaining are unconvinced that the Corbyn leadership has done enough to support them. With the potential to lose from both sides, and a committed party membership strongly in favour of remaining in the EU as part of Corbyn’s wider project of social and economic renewal, these elections might spell the end of a longstanding, agonising effort in toeing the line.