The United Kingdom will leave the European Union later than expected, and will therefore participate in the upcoming European elections. The implications of that are significant.
“I am coming back!” Nigel Farage’s speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg wasn’t particularly pleasing to the pro-EU members in the chamber. For many years, “Mr. Brexit” (as Donald Trump calls him) has tried to get his country to leave the European Union, but the catastrophic mismanagement of UK Prime Minister Theresa May has forced the Brits into a long extension of the process. The new date for exiting the EU will be October 31, or, as Farage dubs it, “trick or treaty.”
According to EU treaties, any country that is a member of the union on the day of the elections must participate in them. This situation is unprecedented, because from the perspective of EU federalists, the one good thing about Britain’s exit was that they were about to lose a significant skeptic of the centralization process they support. Not only will Britain’s participation complicate the formation of a new European Commission (the union’s executive, which needs to be confirmed by parliament), it will also strengthen the euroskeptic movement.
The two-party system in Britain is in crisis. The Labour Party of self-declared Marxist Jeremy Corbyn is tearing itself apart over Brexit. Corbyn himself was never a fan of the EU, because it could, for instance, stand in the way of his plans to renationalize the railways. Working-class Brexit supporters in Northern England are often Labour voters, but the party also needs the middle-class social democrat vote, which adores the EU.
The Tories are equally split, between hard-line euroskeptics, which prefer no Brexit deal with the EU over a bad one, and those who support deep ties between Britain and the Continent. Nobody likes May, but nobody is willing to put her out of power either. Motions of no-confidence have failed. May remains in her seat.
The approval ratings of the government are closing in on rock bottom, but there is no majority, either in Parliament or the British electorate, for either of the current Brexit options. A second referendum, no deal, canceling Brexit, renegotiation, May’s proposed deal—none of them can find enough support. And those 52 percent of voters who chose to leave the EU in the referendum of June 2016 do not want their decision betrayed in any way. The government knows that a such a betrayal would alienate much of the population from the democratic system for decades. This is where the Brexit Party comes in.
Farage left the political group that he called home for decades, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), after far-right activist Tommy Robinson became an advisor to current party leader Gerard Batten. Batten had diverged from the anti-EU message and moved towards a more distinctly anti-immigration platform that didn’t shy away from controversial statements. Farage’s decision was likely also fueled by UKIP’s mediocre performance in consecutive national elections.
Farage now leads the Brexit Party, established in January. The latest YouGov/The Times poll found the Brexit Party leading the field ahead of the European elections, with 23 percent voter support, ahead of Labour (22 percent), the Tories (17 percent), Greens (10 percent), and the Liberal Democrats (9 percent). As the campaign evolves, the new party is likely to make further gains, as it will need time to convince supporters of UKIP (which now polls at 6 percent) to switch.
What does this mean in practice?
As I explained here at TAC, nationalists in Poland and Italy are attempting to build an alliance for the European elections coming up at the end of May. If Farage is right, the UK will yet again not be able to meet the deadline, this one on Halloween, resulting in an even longer extension of Britain’s membership in the EU. After that, Brexit Party members of the European Parliament (MEPs) could establish a strong relationship with Polish and Italian nationalists and work towards a large voting bloc. If they succeed, the legislative pressure from the inside could slow down many bills seeking to harmonize rules within the EU, making the union seem less efficient than ever.
Additionally, the Brexit Party could establish itself as the emergency exit out of Britain’s two-party system, achieving a stronger voice on the national level as well. The only way to avoid the Brexit Party’s success in May will be if the Tories and Labour agree on a customs union together, which would mean that, despite voting to leave the EU, the UK would remain subject to many of the decisions made in Brussels. It is possible that the Brexit Party would then have a big impact on the general election, too, as voter anger mounted.
Farage’s new party will be, as has been much of his political career, a protest. As he attempts to break the political duopoly, we’ll find out whether there is more than meets the eye to the anti-EU façade of Mr. Brexit, and whether his declared appreciation of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher is real. Until then, he’s at least likely to make some people in Brussels very uncomfortable.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.