There is a serious danger that the Brexiteers who have paralysed the House of Commons and undermined the reputation of British politics will take their wrecking tactics to the European Parliament if the United Kingdom is allowed to remain in the European Union for an extended period.
The parliament was already facing the challenge of how to cope with the inevitable increase of populist forces in the next assembly. The addition of British MEPs threatens to add another toxic element to the mix and has the potential to do serious long-term damage to the EU.
While European Council president Donald Tusk yesterday rebuked those who have expressed opposition to British involvement in the forthcoming European elections, fears of what that might actually entail were expressed at the weekend by Manfred Weber, the German politician who is the favourite to become the next European Commission president.
Attending the Fine Gael national conference in Wexford he said few European countries relished the prospect of the UK having to hold European elections. However, that is exactly what will happen if the UK is granted a long extension to its membership to work out what to do next.
There is no way around the legal imperative that all member states have to elect MEPs to the European Parliament but it will be a bizarre situation to have a country which has voted to leave the EU electing MEPs, a majority of whom are likely be committed to getting out of the parliament at the earliest opportunity.
The UK currently has 73 MEPs. In the last European election in 2014 Ukip emerged as the biggest party with 24 seats, followed by Labour with 20 and the Conservatives on 19. The rest of the seats were won by small parties. A list system of proportional representation is used in these elections, in contrast to the first-past-the-post system in UK general elections.
That performance by Ukip and the profile attained by the appalling Nigel Farage was a huge boost to the campaign to have a referendum on EU membership and it created the momentum which ultimately led to the Leave vote. Providing the Brexiteers with another opportunity to use the European Parliament for their own mischievous ends and exploit the fears of a resentful electorate is unlikely to end well.
The European Parliament has the capacity to put a spanner in the works of the entire EU if it so desires
It is theoretically possible that European elections in the UK could provide a rallying point for those who want to remain in the EU or at least desire a softer Brexit. The turnout the last time around was just 35 per cent and a much bigger turnout might give a different result. The problem is that no party apart from the Liberal Democrats is committed to remaining in the EU so the odds must be that, as last time, the elections will be a vehicle for anti-EU forces to mobilise.
Across the continent a variety of anti-EU parties are on their way to winning more than a third of the seats in the new parliament so the addition of British MEPs to their number will give them more power to disrupt proceedings and erode the authority of the other EU institutions.
The European Parliament is now a much more significant body than it was in its earlier years and it has the capacity to put a spanner in the works of the entire EU if it so desires.
The European Council on Foreign Relations has published a paper which says that judging by what many of the populist parties have campaigned for they are likely to use their increased share of seats to obstruct the parliament’s work. The paper cites foreign policy, euro-zone reform and freedom of movement as endangered policies. More to the point, a strong populist presence could limit the EU’s capacity to preserve European values relating to liberty of expression, the rule of law and civil rights.
“Winning more than 33 per cent of seats would enable them to form a minority that could block some of the EU’s procedures and make the adoption of new legislation much more cumbersome – with a potentially damaging impact on the content of the EU’s foreign policy, as well as on the EU’s overall institutional readiness and its political credibility to take initiatives in the area,” the paper says.
On the practical front the outcome of the elections will determine who is the next president of the European Commission as well as its high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. The parliament will also have a veto on the entire membership of the next commission. With the capacity for disruption already high the addition of British MEPs will clearly increase it.
The Irish electorate needs to appreciate the critical importance of the elections on May 24th. In the past, European elections have been widely regarded in this country as an opportunity to vote for frivolous candidates whose election has little consequences for the voters.
This time around the political parties need to spell out clearly what they stand for in European terms so that voters can judge which candidates are committed to the positive development of the EU and which are in the same camp as the populists whose ambition is to put the progress of the past half century into reverse.