Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
It is now clear. Voting against the Withdrawal Agreement if it is again put to Commons will not lead to the no deal that many of its opponents want. Instead ,it will result in a soft Brexit or no Brexit at all – and see the Conservatives condemned as the party that betrayed the referendum result.
Unthinkably, if the Withdrawal Agreement is put to the Commons and fails to pass, or is not put at all, and Britain has to extend Article 50 beyond the end of June, we will be forced to participate in the European Parliament elections which take place across the EU from May 23 – 26. A lengthy extension would set us adrift in uncharted legal waters, but the European Union seems to have already made up its mind where we will put ashore.
Before the recent Brussels summit, an EU document was presented to the ambassadors of member countries setting out the legal context for extending Article 50. It states that if a state fails to hold elections, and the Parliament holds its first session on July 2 with that country still in the bloc, the EU institutions “cease being able to operate in a secure legal context…It follows that no extension should be granted beyond 1 July unless the European Parliament elections are held at the mandatory date,” the document adds.
A legal opinion issued by the German Bundestag’s Europe Department takes an identical view, as does our own Department for Exiting the European Union. It argues that the UK would in these circumstances have to take part in the elections because “the EU Treaties provide that EU citizens have the right to be represented” and the European Parliament “needs to be properly constituted… with duly elected representatives from all Member States” in order to perform its functions.
Let’s just consider what this means. Having promised to deliver on the result of the referendum, Conservatives would be spending the coming weeks explaining to people why they should vote to send representatives to an institution we pledged to have left two months previously. That is not a conversation I relish having on the doorsteps of my constituency, and I doubt many MPs do either. Especially if their vote helped bring this situation about.
Unsurprisingly, few pollsters believe the election would go well for our Party. The most positive prediction I have seen envisages us losing half of our 20 MEPs. It could be worse if our members decide they do not want to spend their evenings and weekends promoting a zombie election.
With a low turnout, Nigel Farage’s nascent Brexit Party is likely to attract support. We also face the prospect of the now far right UKIP sending MEPs back to Brussels, providing a platform for extremists such as Tommy Robinson. At the opposite end of the political spectrum ,the Independent Group could gain fresh momentum, benefiting from the proportional representation system to return its first elected representatives. Even the Liberal Democrats, perhaps with a new leader in place, could be resuscitated by a European election.
Do not assume this political fall out could be contained. The profile and financing these fringe parties obtained from their MEPs would impact on the next general election, making them a more credible proposition in constituencies across the country.
So as MPs prepare for Meaningful Vote Three, I urge them to bear this in mind. Not only is a long delayed Brexit a betrayal of the referendum result, an economic threat and a potential source of further social division, it would compromise the future electoral prospects of the Conservative Party.
In Brussels, myself and my Conservative MEP colleagues have started packing up our offices and many of our staff are leaving for new roles. We are prepared for Brexit. I hope MPs consider the consequences, make the right choice if the Withdrawal Agreement is offered to them again, and ensure it is delivered.