European Parliament Elections: Implications for the UK

During the UK’s fraught relationship with the EU – particularly from David Cameron’s attempt at renegotiation through to the referendum and the protracted process of withdrawal – it was often said that both sides made fatal miscalculations about the other’s intentions. Decision makers in the EU were convinced that Britain would never be so reckless as actually to leave, while British Eurosceptics (as they used to be known) as well as many less committed commentators thought that trade imperatives would push Brussels towards a compromise favourable to the UK. In the end, both were proven wrong: the UK did vote for Brexit and the EU opted to preserve the integrity of the Single Market over relations with London.

How then should we interpret the latest developments: the swing to the right in the European Parliament elections and particularly strong showings for rightist parties in France, Germany and Italy? Unless one current calculation – that Labour will win the UK General Election on 4 July – is equally inaccurate, does the new situation in Europe present a challenge or an opportunity for the next British Government?

We should first ask what has actually happened in the European Parliament elections.   According to the standard narrative, the “far right” has made significant gains against the “pro-European centre” but probably not enough to upset the equilibrium of the Parliament itself or indeed to derail Ursula von der Leyen’s bid for reappointment as European Commission President. The same personalities will very largely be seen in Brussels but in some areas will come under greater pressure to nod in the direction of the “right”, primarily because national Governments in the European Council will feel the need to tack policy to the right in a range of areas, from economic protection to migration, climate and security.

That said, in diplomacy it’s important not to let your own starting point (or who’s paying your salary) cloud your judgement. While it might be convenient politically to demonise all the opposition as “extreme right”, a cool analysis reveals more nuance. For example, there’s a big difference between the German AfD opposition and Georgia Meloni in government in Italy. In Hungary, it’s Victor Orban’s (usually described as “far right”) party that is among the losers. The centre right does seem to have held up across Europe but – in the case of Germany – at the expense of all three of the members of the (national) coalition government. Overall, there has been a significant revolt against incumbents both at national and European level. Where the electoral system delivers centrist coalitions, such protest benefits what might be better thought of as “anti-system” parties.  Perhaps this is why these parties seem to have enjoyed considerable support among the young. And where the anti-system “populists” focus on, for example, the costs of migration and climate policies, it’s easy to attribute the results to the “evil genius” of a far right rather than the shortcomings of the centre.

The current UK polls clearly suggest a similar anti-incumbent dynamic, though in this case with the Labour Party the main expected beneficiary. In the election campaign, Labour has been careful to avoid questioning the fundamentals of the Brexit settlement, while at the same time expressing a desire to work more closely with the EU in security, trade and other areas. Senior Labour figures have throughout the past years maintained close links to European leaders. So what should the UK hope for – or fear from – the new(ish) constellation of power across Europe?  Will the so-called “lurch to the right” help or hinder?

First, while many in and around around Labour may be thinking a lot about the potential to improve Britain’s relationship with Brussels, not many in Brussels will be spending much time on the UK. Europe has its own challenges. Many member states, not least Germany, are facing severe economic pressures. There are significant divisions, including on policy towards Ukraine (and enlargement more generally) and China. Most in Europe see more threats than opportunities from a second Trump Presidency. The position of the EU (which will remain essentially “centrist”) hasn’t changed. Europe’s centrist leaders will be happy for the UK to accept EU rules but will be sceptical that Britain has fundamentally renounced Euroscepticism. As the “centre” becomes more concerned about demands from the “extremes”, they will be even less willing than before to offer the UK concessions which could excite demands from some of their own members. Cherry picking won’t be on offer.

Just as the nationalist parties across Europe find it difficult to cooperate effectively with each other, so it is unlikely they will be inclined to help the UK address its own migration challenges. If the current UK Government has got little to show from cooperation in this area with Macron, its successor will likely find it no easier with the RN in the Matignon.   Some might hope for an unintended benefit for the UK if the EU were to come under pressure from its right wing to reimpose some internal (Schengen) border controls, though this could well be wishful thinking as what might well (for example) suit a RN Government in France would be resisted by Meloni in Italy. But to achieve anything from these relationships some quite subtle diplomacy will be required, which will be a tough test of David Lammy’s “progressive realism” rather closer to home than we had been expecting.

A tougher approach (or at least rhetoric) across the EU might at least help shift the Overton Window in the internal debate within the Labour Party and make it possible for a Labour Government to take strong action, eg on Rwanda-like policies, if it chooses to do so, or equally to make it harder to resist such pressure if it wants to do so. How this plays out will have as much to do with the size and composition of a Labour majority as with the situation in Europe.

If the political dynamic continues to move right – for example in the forthcoming snap French legislative elections – an incoming Labour Government could find itself with fewer allies for pursuing its preferred policies on eg Ukraine and climate. In that scenario, we might well find that an instinctively pro-European Labour Government finds it easier to work with the US on some of these issues, provided (of course) that Biden wins in November. If Trump returns to the White House, a Labour UK might find itself somewhat swimming against a Western tide in key areas of its international policy.

While the results of the European Parliament elections may not of themselves change as much as some fear (or hope), they should alert the centrists and progressives in the UK and Europe to a bigger – and even more unwelcome – reality. The success of their flagship policies depends less on the recent outcome in Europe and the imminent outcome in Britain than on what will happen in November in the US. To coin a phrase, in realist politics “nothing has changed”.

David Landsman

David Landsman is a Senior Advisor at BFPG