Dr Sarah Ingham is a member of Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservative Association.
The Prime Minister was clear in her original request to the European Council for an extension until June 30th that it would not be in the interests of either the UK or the EU to participate in this spring’s elections to the European Parliament. Yesterday’s agreement holds within it the possibility of a further extension beyond the April and May dates that it established. Among the reasons that this possibility it is viewed with dismay across the Commons is the prospect of those elections.
Indeed, many ministers seem to view the UK’s possible participation in the poll as so toxic as to be radioactive, shuddering their ‘no thanks’ in an echo of the anti-nuclear power slogan of yesteryear. Claims are being made, not least by Nadhim Zahawi on Wednesday’s Daily Politics that the participation is the European election would be evidence of ‘political meltdown’ and would ‘unleash forces’. But it would be unfair to single out Zahawi; some of his colleagues have been equally hyperbolic in recent days.
Leaving aside whether whipping up fears about civil unrest only serves to normalise it, is this refusal even to consider allowing UK voters their say in the European elections sensible?
In case MPs haven’t noticed, we are already in the middle of a political meltdown as far as many voters are concerned, . This is in part due to the Prime Minister’s repeated delays in putting her unpalatable Withdrawal Agreement to the test, hoping that unconvinced MPs willbuckle at the 59th minute of the 11 hour. Being under intense time pressure is no way to buy a bottle of wine, let alone to decide the future of this country for decades to come.
Quite what these ‘forces’ are that might be ‘unleashed’ remains a mystery. The dogs of (civil) war? Or another interview with Brenda of Bristol, who was decidedly unimpressed by the announcement of the 2017 general election?
Over a thousand days on from the referendum, the United Kingdom seems even more split about its future relationship with the EU than it was on June 23rd 2016. Every day, we become a more polarised country, constantly assailed by divisive, shrill discourse – not least because Brexit is used by many as their proxy in the culture war.
It is the Article 50 Extension, not the prospect of British voters’ taking part in the Euro Election, that represents collective political failure in Westminster. As the Government, MPs and civil servants have become bogged down in the Brexit process, voters have become an abstraction, ‘the people’ whose will ‘must be respected’.
The European elections would offer a chance to put voters back in the Brexit process. If nothing else, it would be a benign way of taking the country’s temperature, and finding out the electorate’s views on the Euro-issue three years on from the referendum. It would be the ultimate opinion poll.
The poll would be democracy in action – who can argue with that? – but far less divisive and damaging for the country than a Second EU Refernedum, for which ardent Remainers are still agitating and for which exhausted MPs, unable to reach any agreement, might still opt. And with a far-left Corbyn government not absolutely beyond the realms of possibility, fighting the Euros is infinitely preferable than risking a general election.
In addition, the UK’s participation could surely act like the safety valve on a pressure cooker – a means of allowing voters’ emotions, as well as their opinions, to be vented? All that frustration, disillusion and anger with Westminster could be channelled safely into campaigning and voting. It would move the debate on from contested claims about £350 million a week for the NHS: it could be the start of some healing.
The UK sends 73 MEPs to the European Parliament: they have less influence on daily local life than many district councillors. Turn-out in the EU 2014 Election was 35.6 per cent – not quite the level of engagement shown in Ireland (52.4 per cent) or Belgium (89.4 per cent). It reflects the fact that, five years ago, the EU was hardly the major issue for voters that it has been allowed to become, thanks to choices made by the Cameron and May governments. If there is one election where the Conservatives can afford to take a hit, it’s the election for the European Parliament.
With a 21-month implementation period still on the cards, it might be no bad thing for the UK to continue to have some representation in Strasbourg and Brussels. It might be very much in our interest, if not necessarily the EU’s. Of course, should the Prime Minister’s unloved Withdrawal Agreement be passed, or should the EU refuse to grant an Extension, or should we leave with No Deal, this is all just speculation.
But as they vote meaningfully or indicatively over the coming few days, MPs should at least be open to the idea of giving voters their say in late May. They could perhaps consider that, back in June 2016, the people landed them in this mess: perhaps it’s time for the people, through another exercise in democracy, to start helping them get out of it.