Theresa May has written a long letter to EU Council President, Donald Tusk, requesting a further extension to the A.50 notification period until June 30th., the same date she asked for, but was refused, last time out. It is a well drafted letter, which many of us commenting here could probably have drafted for her.
In it she makes much of her ongoing discussions with Jeremy Corbyn as providing an opportunity to create a consensus for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The EU has been telling her that for some time.
But she also acknowledges some facts the UK has been seeking to deny for some time: Firstly, that the Withdrawal Agreement is finalised and cannot be renegotiated. Any discussion with Corbyn is about the non-binding Political Declaration on the future relationship between the EU and UK, and that alone.
Secondly, that any continuation of the UK’s membership beyond 22nd. May creates a legal obligation to take part in the European Elections and she promises to make all the required preparations to enable the UK to do so. She still clings to the hope that the UK might agree and ratify “an orderly Brexit” with the EU before that date, thus enabling the UK to leave without holding the elections.
However that rather ignores the fact that the UK’s participation also impacts on the number of seats on offer in other European Member states, and parties and candidates have a legal right to know how many seats will be on offer. Will the Dublin constituency have 3 or 4 seats, for example, and therefore will some parties nominate 1 or more candidates? Expect legal challenges to the legitimacy of the election if that is not clear by the time nominations close.
Mark Durkan, former leader of the Social Democrat and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland, has sought and won a nomination to run as a Fine Gael Candidate in Dublin – on the understanding that Brexit meant no European Parliament elections would be taking place in Northern Ireland. Will he now run in the Northern Ireland constituency in an election which may or may not happen? How does that possibility impact on his credibility as a candidate for Dublin?
So the bottom line is that her request can only be acceded to by the EU Council on the clear understanding that the UK will participate fully in those elections. Like it or not, the UK will be having “a public vote” on what will effectively become a second referendum on Brexit, however much some parties and groups may like to claim otherwise.
No doubt extreme Brexiteer Parties like UKIP and fringe right wing groups will do well, but will parties supporting Remain or a second public vote do better than pro-Brexit parties? Will the Tories campaign on the basis of a no-deal Brexit, or on “May’s deal”?
No doubt different wings of the Tory party will try to have it both ways but I would expect the election to become (in part) a referendum on their Party’s performance in office. If so, the results will not be pretty. Expect the Tories to claim furiously that it is “a meaningless vote” and that they are focused on “delivering Brexit”.
But if the poll is high and the Tories poll much worse than Labour, the writing will be on the wall. European Elections in the UK have generally provoked little interest and resulted in low polls. This one could be as important at any in UK history. A last chance for Remainers and Brexiteers to have their say.
Unlike a binary referendum poll, voters will also be able to choose between parties supporting “May’s deal”, No deal, a Labour deal?, or Remain. If Parliament can have lots of indicative votes, why not the people as a whole?
But for Labour the EP elections could also prove to be a crucial turning point. They have to avoid contamination with May’s unpopular deal, especially as the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement isn’t even within the scope of the Corbyn May discussions.
So those discussions will have served their purpose by the mere fact that they have happened at all, providing May with a pretext to look for a further A.50 extension from the EU Council, and Corbyn an opportunity to look constructive and statesmanlike. No one will be surprised if they don’t lead to an agreed Corbyn May Brexit deal, and all gloves will be off for the EP elections to come.
But what does Corbyn’s Labour party campaign for? A Brexit deal containing “A customs union”, “close alignment with the Single Market”, or for Remain? The minimum requirement for holding both Leave and Remain potential Labour voters together would be a public vote on the outcome of any future negotiations with the EU.
But for the vast majority of UK voters, Brexit itself has become a huge turn off, and most want it finished with, one way or the other, sooner rather than later. A promise to hold further extensive negotiations with the EU will hardly be a winning electoral platform.
So it will become increasingly difficult for Labour to ride both the Leave and Remain horses at once. Corbyn may have to come out and declare that Remain is preferable to “May’s Deal”, and that a future Labour government would explore all options – a better Brexit deal or a programme to reform the EU as a member – and would put the outcome of any discussions to a second public confirmatory vote.
Corbyn needs to be careful that Remainers do not lose patience with him and move en masse to vote for the Lib Dems, especially in a list system election where voting Lib Dem doesn’t hand the seat to a Tory. My guess is the EP elections will prove almost as difficult for Labour as for the Tories with Brexiteers gravitating to extreme right parties, and Remainers gravitating to the Lib Dems.
But for the EU, all of this is potentially a win win, even if Nigel Farage and some extreme UKIPers are re-elected to the Parliament, provided that Remain supporting candidates are in the majority. This really could be the Remainer’s last chance, and they had better show up at the polls this time around. If more than 17.4 Million voters show up and support Remain supporting candidates, the argument could be over.
French diplomats have characterised suggestions by some EU Officials that the UK might only be offered a “long extension”, perhaps 12 months, as “clumsy.” There are still some discussion to be had before this scenario could come about. The EU Council must agree any extension by unanimity or the UK is out without a deal on 12th. April. That should concentrate minds in the meantime.
Reality can have a hard edge.