I have a confession to make. For all my harping on about Brexit over the past few months, I am woefully uninformed about the upcoming European elections (though my research for this blog post has been a big part of changing that). I mean, I have registered to vote, but I am only now delving into what each potential result means for the UK and for Brexit. After the political intensity of a few weeks ago, Brexit drama has been a lot quieter and more subdued. Given that all the same issues still exist and have only been postponed to later this year, this is a problem. It’s important to keep the pressure on to find a solution.
Despite writing a number of frustrated blog posts in the first quarter of this year, I have barely written or tweeted about how important it is to register to vote in the European elections on the 23rd of May – and part of that is because I’m not sure exactly why it’s important. There are so many conflicting opinions and contradictory information, ranging from ‘this is a proxy second referendum’ to ‘this means literally nothing.’ It feels like the kind of event we are all banging on about without doing even the bare minimum of research. It doesn’t mean it’s not important, but rather that without understanding why – or if – these elections will have an impact on Brexit, I feel a little awkward only retweeting sign-up links. It feels more like virtue signalling than anything else. Even more crucially, if the aim is to convince apathetic people to vote, it’s more compelling when you can explain why it’s important beyond just, “you should, because democracy!”
Obviously, exercising your democratic influence matters. I understand that, generally, using your vote is one of the only ways to have a voice in politics and policy as an average person and it’s important to exercise that right. Our best bet for combatting climate change and reducing social and economic inequality is to elect people who share those aims. Every rejected plastic straw and socially conscious tweet is nothing in comparison to having someone who will fight for those causes on a national and international scale at the helm. I mean, people died in order for women and other marginalised groups to get the vote. Some people still do not have this right. Voting matters. I am in no way disputing that or confused as to why participating in democracy is important. I am interested in why some people believe this vote could be pivotal for the outcome of Brexit, while others think it is irrelevant. I am also interested in whether the conversations of why this all matters will spur any apathetic or disengaged voters to head down to the polls.
So, why does this vote matter, specifically? I wanted to learn more before voting or before getting into heated discussions about it. Twitter can be a great place for social commentary and bite-size opinions, but it’s easy to get caught up in hot-takes and short soundbites without digging a little deeper into the situation. Getting people to sign up to vote is good, but getting people to sign up to vote and being able to discuss the election and our voting choices in context is better.
During my efforts to educate myself and cut through the noise, I found a Guardian article dismissing the possibility of these elections having a material impact on Brexit. This columnist believes that given the general separation between what goes on in the European Parliament and how the EU works with national governments, the truth is that sending a group of pro-Brexit MEPs from the UK will mean nothing for the next set of Brexit negotiations. Originally, I found some of this compelling, though his conclusion that Remainers had already ‘won’ the situation because we’re voting at all felt a little flat. I don’t think anyone looks like a Brexit winner at the moment, but certainly not the Remain contingent, who, despite huge shows of support via the petition and the march, are still struggling to get meaningful traction for any anti-Brexit options.
While I understand that there is little precedent for European elections having a significant impact on domestic British policy, it’s also true that Brexit itself is entirely unprecedented. It may be true that the European elections have never been that important for British governance or UK-EU relations but it still seems a little flippant. Even if our past MEPs have been largely irrelevant to domestic politics, if there were ever a time for that to change with potentially disastrous consequences, it could be now, which seems like too big of a risk to take.
However, I have time for the argument that we have been sending populists to Europe for decades now – as have many other EU countries – and it’s not clear that Farage’s presence will suddenly take on special meaning. It’s already clear that there is a pro-Brexit contingent in both the government and the country – will Brussels take a surge in pro-Brexit MEPs as a sign that the UK is more desperate to leave than they thought? I don’t know, but again, it doesn’t seem like a chance worth taking.
On the other hand, that are plenty of smart people who think that these European elections are especially significant given Brexit. Political think tank The UK in a Changing Europe recently published a long report explaining exactly why the upcoming elections are so important, with the director, Professor Anand Menon, saying “these elections are undoubtedly significant: for the EU, for Brexit and the future of British politics.” This guy spends his life doing Brexit research and he’s probably more informed than your average Express journalist.
Some people believe that the EU elections will act as proxy for a second referendum, so a low turnout from Remainers would suggest lack of support for another vote and vice versa. This is a nice idea in theory, but having seen a 6m+ signature petition and a 1m+ person march yield nothing from the government, I’m not optimistic. Again, though, this doesn’t seem like a chance worth taking. What if?
In a similar vein, some people believe that, as with the local elections, a strong showing of votes from pro-Remain MEPs is the kick Labour needs to pivot and take a strongly pro-Remain stance. Last week’s local elections saw losses for both the Conservatives and Labour, with pro-Remain candidates seeing an uptick in votes. If we can make it clear that in order to get the people’s support, Labour needs to be ardently pro-Remain, then perhaps Corbyn will reconsider his position. If this could work, then it would be powerful, as having the leaders of the UK’s two main political parties both being pro-Brexit is a spanner in the works for the Remain movement, to put it mildly.
I also think there’s something to be said about making clear how much we value our influence in Europe. For ostensibly pro-Remain Brits to be apathetic about who represents us and our interests in Europe seems pretty short-sighted. If we’re going to be here and bang on about how important the EU is for trade, regulation and economic stability, among other things, then we better get out there and vote for someone who we believe will be a good UK representative to the EU. If you honestly believe that the EU and its rules and laws matter, then it should matter who is representing you in those discussions. If we do manage to avoid Brexit, then it is relevant who is part of those discussions for the next five years. If you believe the EU is important, then who governs it is important too.
There’s a lot of contradictory political analysis here. Clearly, no one really knows what the significance of these elections are going to be, if anything at all. When people write passionate articles or spicy tweets about exactly why this election will decide Brexit, there tend to be a lot of opinions and not a lot of facts. But, as has been the thread of this whole blog, I just don’t think it’s worth the risk. Yes, this may all mean nothing. But it might mean something. What if all of us who want to avoid Brexit came out and voted for pro-Remain candidates and it changed Labour’s approach? What if, miracle of miracles, it spurred May into considering the options that avoid Brexit? What if this could be the turning point that showed just how much we value and care about our voice in Europe?
I didn’t sign that petition or attend the People’s Vote march because I knew it would make a difference and prevent Brexit. No one could be sure of that. I did it because I wanted to stand up, be there and make a statement, because I held onto a glimmer of hope that it might mean something. We need to bring that same hope and action to these elections. Even amidst all the uncertainty, one thing is clear to me: as always, you should vote. Don’t take the chance that in what could be a pivotal moment, you were silent.
Today is the last day to sign up to vote in the European elections, and you can (and should!) do so here. Here is a group who will send you updates on who is the best pro-Remain candidate in your area. Get out there and vote! I certainly will be.