Do the EU elections matter?

Dominic Brind and Luke Dunne on whether we should care about the EU election results.

Image credit: Becky Clark via Flickr

YES – Dominic Brind

Much of the coverage in the run up to the EU elections seemed, for the second biggest exercise in democracy the world has ever seen, muted. As the entire continent turned out to vote for the people deciding many of policies that govern all of our lives, we here in Britain seemed almost disinterested. Perhaps that’s simply the fatigue that comes with the total political chaos we’ve experienced over the last few months, as the government loses vote after vote and we seem no closer to leaving the EU.

But despite that, these elections do matter. They matter firstly because they represent, in the minds of many at least, an opportunity to test the waters over Brexit. How else can we explain the disintegration of both the Labour and Conservative vote share.

Many people are approaching this vote as a referendum on Brexit, and that means whatever the result we know that there is significant desire to change our current strategy. With the success of the Brexit Party and the Remain-backing Lib Dems, it is obvious that the current policy of trying to force dodgy deals through Parliament is no longer sustainable. A historically high turn out only reinforces the idea that the political establishment have lost control over Brexit.

This populist surge isn’t an exclusively British phenomenon, even if it is being worked out most prominently in the UK. The EU elections provide an opportunity to test the water everywhere. The success of the RN in France, for example, should encourage us to look beyond the Brexit Party as a local development. Across the continent, people are dissatisfied with the political status quo and are increasingly willing to vote in radical alternatives. The European elections are the public giving their verdict on the balance of power in Europe, and it is essential that politicians listen.

But beyond the broader, long term political implications, these European elections do have concrete consequences. In the run up to the referendum, it was shocking to me how few people seemed to understand or really care about the workings of the EU.

Yes, it’s a large bureaucracy which can seem Byzantine at times but so are all governments, and this election seriously affects how the entire structure is run. These elections are crucial, for example, in determining who will be our next Commission President.

The two main candidates, Frans Timmermans and Manfred Weber, whilst moderate in tone do have significant disagreements about how the EU should be run.

Timmermans, a left winger from the Netherlands, leans towards working with the populist left led by Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza, whereas Weber doesn’t. Timmermans is also far more likely to pursue countries legally when they break EU law. Weber has not excluded working with the populist right, whereas Timmermans has said he will not govern with their help. Ultimately, this is a battle between moderates, but one which have wide ranging consequences for the future of the EU and its approach to the populist threat it faces. So these elections matter, not only for this parliament but for the future of European politics in general.

NO – Luke Dunne

We live in an era of political crisis after crisis. Whereas often you have to wait years for something genuinely important to happen in politics, crucial votes seem to crop up almost weekly. I want to suggest that, in that context, these elections don’t really matter.

They do obviously matter insofar as the subtly shifting balance of power in the European Parliament may or may not precipitate regulatory changes blah blah blah. But this is both boring to talk about and not really the point of this article.

I want to talk about whether these elections say something important about British politics, and whether we should take them as indicative of any new information about what the public things.

Much of the analysis around the rise of the Brexit Party and success of the Lib Dems has rested on the idea that this ‘really shows how dissatisfied the public are with the current handling of Brexit’. Now, without wanting to seem glib, I really don’t think we needed an election to tell us that. The fact that we have had to extend Article 50, had the government’s main (read: only) policy voted down three times and had a Prime Minister resign over Brexit is probably enough to tell us things aren’t going swimmingly. And any further conclusion we might want to draw about how we should progress is almost certain to be unsubstantiated.

Even though the turn out for this election was higher than previous Europeans, it’s still considerably lower than a general or than the referendum. And what does it mean to vote for the Brexit Party or Lib Dems in any case. Do all Brexit Party voters favour a no deal? Do all Lib Dem voters favour remaining no matter what?

Plenty of Brexit Party supporters seem to support a different deal, as do many Lib Dems. Just what that deal looks like is up for question, but the point remains that this election is not in any sense a rerunning of the EU referendum. But because, perversely, the focus of the election was so firmly based around Brexit, it’s not clear that we have really learnt anything about any other policy area either.

Hands up who knows what the Brexit Party’s stance is on workers rights? No, me neither.

If the European elections can tell us anything, it’s the sorry state of British politics. Our biggest institutions – our schools, our welfare systems, the NHS – lie crippled by austerity and neglect. And the democracy which exists to fix them has been poisoned by the runaway train of demagoguery that is Brexit. As an electorate, we have forgotten to focus on anything else. These elections don’t really matter, but of course that’s really our own fault. We now know that people want us to get on with Brexit, but we’ve known that for the last three years. Ultimately, these elections were an immense democratic undertaking that are yet to really tell us what people want – as futile an exercise as any

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