In Depth

MEP elections: when are the votes and will the UK take part?

Both the EU and Britain say all 28 member states must participate if Brexit is delayed beyond June

Elections to the European Parliament are due to take place in just a couple of months yet the EU remains undecided about how or even if the UK will be involved.

Theresa May has said that if her Brexit deal is not passed in the Commons by the time the European Council meet for a crunch summit on Thursday, she will seek a long extension to the Article 50 process.

A minister close to the prime minister told ITV’s Robert Peston that the Cabinet expects the EU to grant the UK a Brexit delay of nine months - “which would of course require the UK to participate in May’s elections to the European Parliament”, the political editor writes.

European Council President Donald Tusk appeared to confirm that extension claim in a tweet last week in which he vowed to appeal to the 27 other EU leaders “to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy”.

It was reported last May that the UK Electoral Commission had set aside £829,000 for its “activities relating to a European Parliamentary election in 2019”. The Commission described the money as a “precautionary measure, so that we have the necessary funds to deliver our functions at a European Parliamentary election, in the unlikely event that they do go ahead”.

So when are the MEP elections due to take place?

A total of 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) currently represent more than 512 million people from the UK and the 27 other member states.

In February last year, the European Parliament voted to decrease the number of MEPs from 751 to 705 if the UK were to withdraw from the European Union on 29 March 2019, as per the current schedule.

The 2019 elections are due to take place between 23 and 26 May, although the new parliament will not sit, nor the new members be sworn in, until 2 July.

Will the UK have to hold elections?

In a letter to Tusk on 11 March, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that if the UK is still part of the EU at the end of May, “it will be legally required to hold these elections, in line with the rights and obligations of all Member States as set out in the Treaties”.

As the BBC notes, there is “no question that the UK would be in breach of those treaty obligations if it failed to hold elections”, but “how much would that matter, if the UK was on a path out of the EU anyway?”

In the Commons last week, Labour MP Yvette Cooper quoted a leading EU lawyer who argues that it may not be necessary for the UK to participate in the elections and that sitting UK MEPs could just stay on, or MEPs be nominated rather than elected.

But according to The Guardian, a spokesperson for the prime minister said that no one in government thought there might be an adequate alternative to the UK holding the elections.

However, some commentators argue that May could be using the prospect of the UK taking part in the MEP elections as a stick with which to help push her deal through Parliament.

“The theory is she would agree a one or two-year Article 50 delay at the [European Council] summit, and then give MPs one more chance to accept her deal instead before the delay came into force,” says Politico.

What will happen if the UK does take part?

If the UK were to hold European elections in May, “Brexit would inevitably become the main theme, and not only in the UK”, says the Financial Times’ Wolfgang Munchau.

“Every populist party in Europe would argue, with cause, that the EU is an undemocratic, self-serving racket and it would destroy electoral campaigns,” he continues.

There is also the possibility that the UK would elect many more Eurosceptic MEPs amid “outrage over a long delay”, Munchau adds.

Indeed, the elections “would trigger a likely return to British politics for Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader, who is backing a new Brexit party to field candidates”, says The Daily Telegraph.

Polls currently suggest the big winners electorally would be the two main parties in the UK, with UKIP set to lose half their seats. 

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