In the May 2014 European elections, Ukip won 27 per cent of the vote – beating both Labour and the Tories. That was the catalyst that eventually forced David Cameron to permit the EU referendum, the first tremor in the current political earthquake.
Five years on, if Brexit ends up being delayed by more than two months, the UK could participate in the next set of elections to the European Parliament – on May 23. Popular anger about the stalling of our EU withdrawal, and attempts to reverse the referendum altogether, mean the outcome of these elections could also be dramatic.
It is now “pretty much unavoidable” that the UK will vote in May’s elections, says Nigel Farage. He adds: “And the reshaping of British politics – with people identifying as Leavers and Remainers, not Tory or Labour – means this great Brexit betrayal will generate a strong Eurosceptic vote.”
The EU has clearly sought to frustrate Brexit, hoping to retain the UK’s annual contributions and discourage others from leaving. But if millions of upset British voters send a renewed rabble of stroppy MEPs to the European Parliament in May, they could become a focal point for a rising number of similarly Eurosceptic members from elsewhere.
For populist parties, now ruling in Italy, Poland and Hungary, have strengthened their hand in virtually every other major EU country. Polls in France show Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National now neck-and-neck with Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, having been 10 points behind this time last year.
Italy’s anti-EU League party and Five Star Movement are expected to make major gains, as is Poland’s Brussels-defying Law and Justice party. Germany’s hard-Right Alternative fur Deutschland, now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, is also likely to secure more MEPs on a Eurosceptic platform.
The stakes are certainly high, with a growing chorus of populists likely to chalk-up historic gains at the expense of establishment parties, capturing around a third of the European Parliament’s 705 seats. Amid such insurrection, the last thing Brussels needs is a group of campaigning British MEPs – only there as a result of a last-minute Article 50 extension.
For the EU has plenty of other problems. The eurozone economy has stalled, with the German powerhouse and paymaster about to join Italy in recession. Growth across the single currency area is grotesquely uneven, with the poorer southern nations locked in a high-currency straitjacket, labouring under a crippling exchange rate that is only right for their more competitive northern neighbours.
That’s why youth unemployment is over 30 per cent in Spain and Italy and almost 40 per cent in Greece, but just 5 per cent in Germany. Such inequality fuels resentment everywhere, as poorer euro members suffer and richer nations send bailouts. Hopes of a fiscal union look utopian, as efforts to create one consistently break down, falling foul of national realities.
Facing more migrant crises, and chronically uneven prosperity between member states, the EU has at its heart – in the form of the euro – a fundamentally unsustainable construct. The single currency is just one sovereign downgrade, one eurozone bond crisis away from a catastrophic implosion. That’s why the European Central Bank, unlike its US and UK counterparts, is still pumping out vast sums of virtual emergency money each month. The eurozone is approaching “a period of continued weakness and pervasive uncertainty”, said ECB supremo Mario Draghi last week. And he wasn’t blaming Brexit.
With a tough few years ahead for the EU, the stark reality is that having the UK still nominally in the club, with a bunch of troublesome Brits in the European Parliament, could make life tougher for Brussels. Farage certainly hopes so. Lawyers for Leave means Leave, the Brexit campaign group, have launched legal action, demanding the UK is allowed to take part in May’s European elections if Article 50 is extended. Farage himself has launched the Brexit Party.
“We’ll run a full slate of candidates in May, including lots of businessmen and businesswomen – because voters want proper grown-ups representing them, not career politicians,” he says. There’s “work to be done”, he adds. “But we’ll be ready!”
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