On the 23 May, the United Kingdom will go to the polls in the European Parliament elections.
Gareth Evans, Lecturer in Law, provides a brief summary of some of the key points connected to the elections: their purpose and procedure; why the UK is having to take part; and what impact today’s vote could have on the political landscape in the UK.
What are the European Parliament elections?
The European Parliament is one of the two legislative organs of the European Union and is the only EU institution directly elected by the people. Under Article 14 of the Treaty on European Union, elections for the European Parliament are required to be held every five years, electing a total of 751 MEPs across the 28 EU member states. Each member state has a proportion of MEPs calculated by population size; ranging from Malta with 6 MEPs to Germany with 96 MEPs. The United Kingdom elects 73 MEPs through a closed list proportional system (although this is slightly different in Northern Ireland) where each voter casts one vote for their chosen political party, rather than a specific candidate. Seats are then allocated using the D’Hondt formula – a method of proportional representation, designed to better convert the proportion of votes into seats allocated to each political party.
The reason for this difference in voting system reflects the fact that rather than representing specific single member constituencies, as is the case in the UK Parliament, MEPs are elected to represent multi-member regional constituencies. In some member states (e.g. Estonia, Netherlands or Sweden) the state itself comprises a single electoral region. Other member states, the UK included, subdivide their national territory into specific electoral regions. The UK is divided into 12 multi-member electoral regions, each of which then elects a set number of MEPs, based on population size. Grouping these regions and their share of MEPs onto the canvas of the UK’s four constituent nations, we find the breakdown of the number of MEPs as follows:
England (comprising nine separate regions) 60 MEPs
Scotland 6 MEPs
Wales 4 MEPs
Northern Ireland 3 MEPs
Further details on the UK’s regional constituencies, and the political parties in those regions can be found via the following link.
Why is the UK required to hold these elections?
Alongside the complexities of the D’Hondt method, there is the added confusion of why the UK is required to hold these elections, two years and eleven months to the day after the referendum where a majority of voters opted to leave the EU. The reason for this scenario rests in the interminable deadlock at Westminster, and the UK Government’s failure to secure a majority to pass the Withdrawal Bill. Under the terms of the Article 50 process, the original date for the UK’s departure from the EU was at the end of the scheduled two-year negotiation process, namely 29 March 2019. The failure of the Withdrawal Bill to pass through Parliament before this date, however, led to the Prime Minister requesting an extension to the original withdrawal date. Originally this led to a new departure date of the 12 April, then further extended to the 31 October 2019. In the terms of this second agreed extension, the UK was obliged to take part in European Parliament elections, or leave the EU on 1 June 2019 with no deal.
The result of this welter of political activity, therefore, sees the UK having to take part in elections for the next five-year term of the European Parliament, while also continuing with the Brexit process. In a further ironic twist, in the albeit unlikely event that MPs support the Withdrawal Bill, set to be reintroduced into Parliament on the week commencing 3 June, the UK’s newly elected MEPs may never take up their seats in the European Parliament on the 2 July 2019.
A Second Referendum by Proxy?
After having considered the process and reasoning behind Thursday’s vote, it is now appropriate to consider the possible effects of these elections on the UK’s political landscape, and the Brexit process. In this regard, I present the possible issues connected with this Thursday’s vote in three parts:
The first, perhaps most obvious factor connected with the vote, relates to the breakdown of the result between the hard-Brexit and unambiguously pro-remain parties. In the past, European Parliament elections have served as useful second-order polls on voter attitudes towards the UK government, as well as barometers on the extent of Euroscepticism/enthusiasm. Thursday’s vote looks unlikely to deviate from this pattern and, in the context of Brexit, is translatable to a second referendum by proxy.
On current predictions, the newly formed Brexit Party are set to receive the largest share of the vote, but not an overall majority. Indeed, the share of the vote between the hard-Brexit and unambiguously pro-remain parties is currently neck-and-neck, and so a re-run of voter attitudes at the 2016 referendum appears likely. On this point, it is pertinent to consider the percentage share of the vote, as well as the number of seats allocated to each party – both will likely play significantly in later debates on translating Thursday’s vote into a statement of national intention on Brexit.
Second, with the looming departure of Theresa May as Prime Minister, the outcome of Thursday’s vote is also likely to have profound effects on the future makeup of the Conservative Party. On current polling, the Party are forecast to suffer significant losses across the UK, and possibly their worst ever UK-wide electoral defeat. With a large proportion of the votes forecast to be lost being to the newly formed Brexit Party, the final form of Thursday’s vote and the share of the vote between the hard-Brexit and unambiguously pro-remain parties, stands to play a significant role in deciding the ideological stance of the next leader of the Conservative Party, and the next Prime Minister.
A third, and perhaps less obvious factor to bear in mind after Thursday, is the territorial breakdown of the result across the 12 electoral regions – in particular, the devolved parts of the UK. If treated as a proxy to a second referendum, recent polling suggests that the result on Thursday is likely to mirror the 2016 referendum: delivering clear majorities for pro-remain groups in Northern Ireland and Scotland; a very close result in Wales, perhaps now flipped in favour of a pro-remain majority; and a narrow, but regionally incongruent, majority in favour of leave in England. With this in mind, divisions between the UK’s various territorial cleavages stand to continue to play a role in dividing the political tapestry of these islands, and to challenge the etymology of Brexit as a unified ‘British Exit’ from the EU.
By way of a closing remark, the vote on Thursday stands likely to deliver fresh impetus into the Brexit process; where that process will end, however, remains uncertain.