European Parliament Elections: A Chance for the UK to Return to the Open Society Champions League
Kurt Bassuener and Toby Vogel
Wednesday’s decision by the EU’s national leaders to extend the Brexit deadline to October 31 provides a path for the common mobilization of pro-EU and Remain forces in the UK, as well as a broad popular reconnection to a Europe which needs the UK’s hitherto presumed perennial commitment to liberalism and open societies.
Since the Brexit vote nearly three years ago, no actor or faction on the British political spectrum has offered the country’s citizens, or admirers in Europe and beyond, reason for hope or confidence. The abject void of moral leadership, combined with partisan and personal self-service, have been disheartening in the extreme. Both the increasingly schizophrenic Conservative Party under Prime Minister May and the weakly moored Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, have failed to confront the realities following the Brexit vote, each straddling the national divide in the name of party unity, while in reality highlighting value-free opportunism. In the Tories’ case, May’s prioritization of party unity has left the initiative to the hardest and most deluded of the Brexiteers. In Corbyn’s case, the ostensible challenge of maintaining party unity allowed him until only recently to dodge clarity on his own pro-Brexit convictions (in pursuit of “socialism in one country”). The resulting dynamic has been one of rank partisanship, factionalism, and intellectual torpor. A general election under current conditions — with either May or a committed Brexiter at the helm versus Labour “led” by Jeremy Corbyn — would resolve nothing in terms of this most proximate threat to British mobility and livelihoods: a still undefined Brexit. Public satisfaction with both parties handling of Brexit is understandably abysmal and falling.
UK participation in the European Parliamentary elections, should this go forward, allows an opportunity for a clear electoral reflection on Britain’s “Europe question.” The fact that MEPs are elected under proportional representation also allows a far lower barrier to entry for those who wish to challenge Brexit on the merits — provided they are unified to that end. Given the past three years of intellectual dishonesty from Britain’s leading parties, building on the fallacious promises of the Leave campaign, this is an opportunity that must be seized by Brexit opponents to develop an explicitly pro-Europe, anti-Brexit political vehicle to contest the EP elections at the end of May.
The flat-footedness of both the Tories and Labour on this eventuality is a distinct advantage; neither the Conservatives or Labour are at all prepared for EP elections. The potential to develop a non-extremist populism of the centre was demonstrated (though subsequently considerably squandered) by the electoral fortunes of Emmanuel Macron and En Marche, which swept France’s enervated mainstream Socialists and Republicans to the margins in the 2017 elections. Attempts to reclaim or body-snatch an existing party have thus far failed miserably, as the formation of the Independent Group attests. A built-to-purpose broadly liberal, open society, values-centric popular movement to contest the European Parliamentary elections has the potential to galvanize anti-Brexit social currents into a potent political force, cutting deep into the electoral strength of the main parties, while potentially uniting, for this existential issue, several smaller parties — the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Greens, and the Independent Group, as well as independents. By uniting and campaigning as a multiparty coalition for the EP elections under a common banner, to represent the UK in the EP as a single bloc, they could maximize impact. Those legitimate critics of Tory and Labour party-over-country policies cannot now credibly militate against making common cause for partisan advantage.
Such a coalition would require all hands on deck, including cultural figures, in an effort to get out the vote, and draw votes from hitherto Conservative or Labour constituencies. Remainers need to hang together, or face being hung out to dry separately.
A broad coalition could also serve as an incubator for the new leadership and vision the UK so desperately needs. A potential boomerang effect into British politics could help force a tectonic shift that is long overdue — pressing the political spectrum to conform more to the most salient divides in the general public, between open and closed societies. This phenomenon is not unique to the UK. It is also evident in Germany, elsewhere in Europe, and in the US (though President Trump has managed to hijack the party through galvanizing a popular base for a more closed society). The potential effects would be manifold. While European Parliament elections are generally characterized by low turnout throughout the EU, a pronounced shift of support away from the Tories and Labour could only indicate weakness for both parties on the home front, perhaps even precipitating leadership changes and development of more genuine and values-based party platforms.
A sizeable popular constituency to revoke Article 50 — now standing at over 6 million, in an electorate of roughly 47 million — is a potentially potent voting bloc, even presuming there were no other fellow travelers similarly inclined. Polling indicating that 25% would boycott EP elections in Britain would only amplify the magnitude of an explicitly pro-Europe movement, particularly if it could get youth to the polls.
What’s been lacking to date is leadership. There is no doubt that Brexit remains a seriously divisive issue in the UK, with the potential to become more so. What is also clear is that neither of the major parties has a policy aimed at leveling with citizens about the political, social, and economic ramifications of leaving the EU in the current context, let alone proposals for how to remediate the problems which helped lead to 52% of voters opting for Brexit three years ago taking the handicap of Brexit into view. The recent turn of events opens a window of opportunity to address these concerns with creativity, vision, and intellectual honesty which has been sorely absent.
You can’t win if you don’t get on the field. And at present, pro-Europe, pro-open society forces have no compelling home or leadership on a statewide scale. It would be ironic, but somehow also fitting, that by contesting EU-wide elections, a realistic common British vision of itself in Europe and the wider world of today might be catalyzed. Should it manifest such a perspective, the UK can also help re-center a Europe which sorely needs such a fundamental recommitment to its foundational values.
Kurt Bassuener and Toby Vogel are co-founders of the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin-based think-tank. They live in Dundee and Brussels, respectively.