So! Here we are. After a tense few days in mid-April, with Parliament briefly, excitingly, seizing control of itself for a (sadly now abandoned) experiment to solve the deadlock and, briefly, the very real prospect that May would crash us out of the EU out of sheer spite (or—so much worse—by accident), we finally have our extension, requiring us to commit to participate in the European elections. Another hurdle cleared.
Inevitably, Parliament then broke for Easter for a week; and has since pissed about, holding meaningless cross-party talks (the spirit of collaboration and conciliation in these talks can be best summed up by May’s three offers that have thus far leaked to the public: “You need to agree to my deal,” “When you think about it, my deal is what you want,” and “Alright, you can have [thing that’s already part of my deal]”) (UPDATE: Welp), dithering about what the local elections two weeks ago meant, reluctantly producing manifestos that mention precisely zero European issues and largely wasting time, while Farage’s I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-UKIP jumped out of the box with a powerful message and basically no manifesto at all.
May’s decided to head off Bercow’s objections to Meaningful Vote 3 by skipping it altogether and going straight to the bill intended to enact the treaty (technically a different legislative question, so legit), and that’s going to fail as well; and now she’s promised her party that she’ll finally step down then, meaning that after the vote on the bill in early June we get to waste potentially another six weeks on a Tory leadership challenge. We’re basically just treading water until the October deadline, now.
But for now, we have an election in a week! Let’s talk about that.
So What’s A European Election, Then?
Instituted in 1979 in response to a drive to make the EU more democratic (and more like a federal nation-state, which is the bloc’s eventual long-term goal), the five-yearly European election allows the people of Europe to directly appoint representatives to the European Parliament in Strasbourg; since 2014 it’s also allowed them to elect the President of the European Commission (the Commission is essentially the government cabinet, making its President the de facto leader of the whole EU).
Eh, what’s that you say? I thought the EU was led by “unelected bureaucrats”? Well, that’s a whole thing. The President was never really unelected—they’re appointed by the Council of Europe (consisting of the presidents and prime ministers of the EU’s member states), then approved by Parliament—but now less than ever. The Treaty of Lisbon in 2009 directed the Council to choose a member of the largest Europarty in Parliament (more on them in a moment), and the parties immediately responded by proposing spitzenkandidaten (“lead candidates”); and Parliament promptly announced that, going forward, only the spitzenkandidat of the largest party would be granted approval, leading, in 2014, to the EPP’s spitzenkandidat Jean-Claude Juncker being made President. Thus, in a fairly quiet way, the European election became a Presidential election as well.
Right, But Isn’t This A Soft Referendum?
Is it? See, here’s my problem with this. Yes, everyone’s talking about it being a soft referendum (well, not everyone; Corbyn’s desperately trying to make it about other issues, and the Tories are pretending it’s not happening at all), and if we treat it as a soft referendum then of course it is one. But it’s not a referendum, it has no actual legal power to affect Brexit at all, and we wouldn’t say this were it not for the fact Britain always treats the European elections as though they don’t matter and that’s basically how we got here in the first place.
Here’s why I think it’s a bad idea to treat this election as a soft referendum:
- How do we win? Since it’s not a referendum, there’s no metric for measuring the result. Is it most seats or most votes? What happens if one side gets most votes but the other gets most seats? Do we get to tot up all Brexit parties vs all Remain parties, or is it just the largest party on each side? Unless Remain wins by all metrics—and we won’t, even slightly—Farage will declare victory regardless, so why talk up the “soft referendum” angle at all?
- We can’t win. If Labour’s NEC had had the good sense to unambiguously declare the party for a referendum at the end of last month, perhaps we’d be having a different conversation now. It’d be a simple binary—Labour vs Brexit Party—and a good chance of Labour winning. But they’ve dragged out their bloody triangulation strategy a little longer, and Remainers are actively calling a vote for Labour a vote for Brexit. (People’s Vote are being sneered at for saying Labour “passes their referendum test,” but they’ve understood the situation better than most and are trying to control the narrative, to be able to claim victory after the fact. That’s all this is about.) So now the Remain vote’s fatally split, with Labour-Remainers torn between party loyalty and “sending Labour a message,” and there’s no realistic chance of beating Farage by any metric. So why be a mug? Let’s just not play his game!
- We can’t “send Labour a message,” either. That’s what swung this for me, really. The local elections on May 2nd were disastrous for Labour. These were seats they lost in 2015 and should have been able to get back; they should have picked up 500+ new seats. Instead they lost eighty seats, with the (unambiguously pro-Remain) Lib Dems and Greens picking up the vast majority of the Tories’ lost seats. Corbyn’s takeaway? “The people want us to get on with Brexit.” So fuck ’em. Fuck Farage, fuck May, fuck Corbyn. My first impulse back in mid-April was to vote in this election on European parties and policies, and what our national leaders have told me is that my first impulse was right.
If you want to treat this as a soft referendum, I understand—I really do—and good luck to you, but I’d urge you not to. If you must, though, here’s my advice.
- Vote unambiguously. We all know Corbyn’s going to count any votes for Labour as votes for his constructive ambiguity. Realistically, Labour MPs are backing and will continue to back a referendum, but that’s not the same as voting for Remain parties. Vote for Lib Dems, vote for Greens (don’t bother with ChangeUKTheIndependentGroupForChangeNowTheTiggers or whatever they’re calling themselves, they’re a bloody mess).
- Vote tactically. The d’Hondt system is a proportional representation system, but only barely. Blair chose it, and Blair didn’t want PR; he wanted a system that favoured large parties (since he was, at the time, leading the largest party). There’s a not too terrible explainer of it here, but in practical terms, it means the largest two or three parties get broadly proportional seats, but the last seat or two look much more like first-past-the-post, where a handful of votes can make the difference. So look at polling (ideally, for individual seats, if there are any; Britain Elects is worth watching). Look to vote for the most pro-Remain party with 10% of the voter or better, or in fourth place or better (or both).
But I say fuck Farage’s narrative and vote for the Europarty whose views you most like (and if it happens to be a party which, in the UK, is unambiguously for Remain, then good luck to you).
So Tell Us About The Parties, Dave
I’m glad you asked! So this can all be terribly confusing, because most of the various countries’ national parties operate in the European Parliament under the banner of what are formally called “parties at the European level” (but inevitably and perhaps mercifully known as Europarties), but in turn the Europarties (along with national parties not flying Europarty banners, or individual MEPs) are collected together in standing coalitions called “groups in the European Parliament,” and I’m going to try and simplify by talking about the latter groups, because they are, for all intents and purposes, the standard power blocs of the European Parliament.
There are eight at present, from largest (for now!) to smallest:
The Group of the European People’s Party (EPP)
The centre-right group, keeping in mind that “centre right” in Europe equates to left-of-centre by UK standards. The party of Juncker and Tusk, who’ve led the EU since winning in 2004. They’re pro-austerity, pro-European, pro-Christian and generally content to let Germany lead the bloc. Their spitzenkandidat is Manfred Weber, who’s opposed forgiving Greek debt and has a history of voting against LGBT rights in Parliament. No UK parties are flying the EPP banner.
The Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D)
The centre-left group (same caveat; they’re politically roughly on a par with Corbyn), S&D are anti-austerity, pro-workers’ rights, pro-European and pro-equality. They’re talking about a European minimum wage, are open to revisiting rules on nationalisation, and are even making good noises about climate issues. Their spitzenkandidat is Frans Timmermans, who’s been smashing it in every debate. Labour UK flies the S&D banner.
European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)
David Cameron formed this group in 2009 when his party bitched at him for being in the pro-Europe EPP. It’s formed of right and centre-right euroskeptic parties and is sort of fash-light, with lots of talk of “common sense” and “traditional values.” They sound a bit like your grandad at a barbecue after a beer or two. Their spitzenkandidat is Jan Zahradil, whose campaign slogan is “retune the EU.” The Tories fly the ECR banner in the UK.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE)
The main centrist group, the ALDE are good technical politicians, playing the main game of the European Parliament, which is coalition- and consensus-building. They’re arguably the most fervently pro-European party, and indeed their manifesto is essentially “we’re going to be more European than anyone else.” They’ve declined to run a spitzenkandidat, but it seems likely Guy Verhofstadt would be President if they won, who of course you’ll know from the Brexit negotiations. The Lib Dems fly the ALDE flag in our elections.
The European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)
The main hard-left group, formed of Scandinavian greens and Mediterranean communists, GUE/NGL treads a fine remain-and-reform line, favouring further European integration while agitating to abolish the Maastricht Treaty and radically reform the bloc. They’re pro-worker, anti-fascist, pro-diversity, all that good stuff. GUE/NGL’s spitzenkandidat is Nico Cué. The only UK party standing for GUE/NGL is Sinn Féin.
The Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA)
A curious coalition, consisting of the European Greens (leftist and environmentalist, of course) and the European Free Alliance, a group of left-leaning, green-friendly, pro-European independence movements including Flemish, Corsican, Latvian and Catalan movements, among others. Their platform is, obviously, tackling the climate crisis. Greens/EFA are fielding two spitzenkandidaten, Ska Keller and Bas Eickhout. In the UK, the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymrw are all flying the G/EFA banner.
Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF)
Look, it’s bad enough I had to write about ECR. EFDD and ENF are Farage’s current group and UKIP’s current group, respectively. They’re borderline-fash and actual-fash. I can’t imagine you’re reading my blog and considering voting for these guys, so let’s leave it at that.
So, if you’re moved by my argument, I would suggest going through this list, reading up on the parties, reading their manifestos, reading about the spitzenkandidaten and choosing accordingly… and talking about it. Tackle the “soft referendum” narrative; remind people that this is an actual, real vote: for MEPs, for Strasbourg, for the Presidency. Remind people that the EU was a democracy all along, and if we’d actually treated it like one, and participated in it, we might not be where we are now.
And if you’re still hoping for advice on where to vote, could I suggest S&D? I know Labour are shit on Brexit, and it infuriates me too; and I know Corbyn’ll only go and treat votes for Labour as votes for his stupid nonpolicy on a referendum. But S&D are within twenty seats of being largest party, for the first time in fifteen years, and we might actually be able to put a socialist in charge of the European Commission, instead of a pro-austerity homophobe.
Cheers and good luck making your mind up. It’s not a fucking simple choice, by any means.