Next week's European elections in the U.K. could be a $100M farce thanks to Brexit

It's an election the U.K. doesn't want and might not even need.
Image: Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage rides on their bus during a visit campaigning for the European Parliament election in Pontefract, northwest England
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage campaigns in the European Parliament election in Pontefract, northwest England, on May 13.Oli Scarff / AFP - Getty Images

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By Patrick Smith

LONDON — Britons go to the polls next week in one of the strangest elections of modern times.

It’s an election the country doesn’t want and possibly doesn’t need — whoever is elected could swiftly find themselves out of a job.

It has been almost three years since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, but by law it must take part in elections for the European Parliament as long as it remains a member.

With no imminent solution to the Brexit impasse, 73 seats in the U.K. are up for grabs on Thursday.

Any existing members of the European Parliament from the U.K. would effectively be sacked if Prime Minister Theresa May finally pushes her plan for leaving the E.U. through a rebellious House of Commons next month. And any new European Parliament members may never take their seats, becoming obscure political trivia rather than actual lawmakers.

Whatever the outcome, the election is likely to cost the U.K. at least 100 million pounds, or more than $127 million, in public money.

A European Union flag flies and a Vote European Election sign hangs from a house in south London, Britain, May 16, 2019.Hannah McKay / Reuters

Establishment struggles

Ashley Karmanski spent much of April knocking on doors and distributing leaflets in northwest England encouraging people to vote for him as a Conservative Party candidate in local council elections that took place this month.

But before next week's vote, he’s staying at home.

And not just because — like many party activists — he’s frustrated that the Conservative government hasn’t managed to make Brexit happen yet.

Karmanski also fears for his safety.

"Obviously to campaign you’ve got to speak to a lot of people," he told NBC News, "and the amount of abuse I was getting, literally just for representing the Conservatives, was just incredible.”

“People swearing at me, threatening me, telling me to get off their property.”

Karmanski, 30, said he also received abuse because of his Eastern European-sounding surname.

“I knew I’d need thick skin when I went into it," he added.

Karmanski lost his local election race, but he was far from the only representative for Britain's ruling party to bear the brunt of the public's frustration.

Thirteen-hundred Conservative councilors lost their seats.

The opposition Labour Party, which according to past trends should have made large gains, didn’t do much better.

Both look set to struggle next week.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage rides on their bus during a visit campaigning for the European Parliament election in Pontefract, northwest England, on May 13, 2019.Oli Scarff / AFP - Getty Images

Meanwhile the brand-new Brexit Party is polling at 18 percent and looks set to win several seats in a European Parliament that it so despises.

Its leader, Nigel Farage, who is an ally of President Donald Trump, has capitalized on the angry public and struggling rivals.

The prime minister has said more than 50 times that the original March 29 deadline for leaving the E.U. would be met. It wasn’t.

Brexit supporters are frustrated there has been no progress, while remain supporters are frustrated there is no broader acceptance of the need for a second referendum, in which voters might be able to vote to stay in the E.U. after all.

Parliament, not the prime minister, has the final legal say on how to leave, and lawmakers have repeatedly rejected May’s withdrawal agreement, hammered out with the European Commission in Brussels over two painstaking years.

With the divorce date pushed back until Oct. 31, May entered cross-party talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to try to find a way out of the deadlock. Those broke down Friday without agreement.

May wants to bring her deal back for a fourth time in the first week of June and, facing ever-growing pressure from lawmakers in her own party, conceded this week that she may have to stand down if defeated again.

That would trigger a messy and time-consuming election to replace her as Conservative Party leader and prime minister. The prospect of a "no deal" Brexit, causing chaos in business and public services, would loom once again.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May visits a charity providing support for victims of domestic violence in west London on May 13, 2019.Victoria Jones / AFP - Getty Images

'Standing for nothing'

The saga has not just roiled the ruling Conservatives, however.

Labour officially backs Brexit and some of its supporters voted Leave in 2016, but the party’s membership and parliament members tended to back remain and are keen on a second referendum. Senior figures within the party, including deputy leader Tom Watson and shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keith Starmer, explicitly back a new referendum.

But the party agreed at its policy-making annual conference last year that it would back another Brexit vote only if it was to prevent a "no deal" scenario or a "damaging Tory Brexit" — a somewhat vague pledge — and Corbyn and his inner circle are known to be Eurosceptic.

Jonathon Hawkes was a Labour councilor in southeast England for more than eight years. But that came to an end after voters seemed to punish the party for its equivocal stance on Brexit.

“What I found really, really hindered us in the local elections is that we’re not perceived to have a clear message on what our position was,” he said. “Labour has deliberately adopted this managed ambiguity, trying to appeal to people who voted leave and also people who voted remain — well, my experience is that this has just not worked. We are essentially seen as standing for nothing.”

Hawkes warns that Farage and the nationalist right are occupying political space previously inhabited by Labour and liberal Tories.

“I think we should have the bravery to be self-critical about this," he said, adding that mainstream parties have stopped addressing "the things that people are concerned about, whether that’s globalization, immigration, the changing nature of work.

“The two main parties stopped talking about this," he added. "Farage isn’t playing by our rules. And it seems like the populist narrative that he’s providing is almost going unchallenged at the moment, and that’s got to be fixed soon.”

While the elections may be of little immediate consequence, they have the potential to reshape the narrative around Brexit.

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the launch of Labour's European election campaign in Kent, Britain, May 9, 2019.Toby Melville / Reuters

The European Parliament uses a form of proportional representation. Smaller parties have traditionally performed well and it could be that disgruntled voters on all sides are more keen than usual to go against the main two parties.

But whatever is happening in U.K. politics, it’s not confined to next week's European vote, political experts say.

“Whatever excuses you come up with, the fact that a party that’s less than two months old is heading the polls in a national campaign is bloody remarkable,” said Anand Menon, professor of politics at King's College London.

Menon points out that Corbyn — a Marxist who spent decades on the outer fringes of British politics — was elected before the referendum, an early signal of a move toward a new political era.

“The referendum helped break the mold of British politics, but that mold was already cracked," Menon said.

"It’s a new politics, it’s all sorting itself out — one of the many reasons we don’t really know what’s happening," he added.

Correction (Tuesday, May 21, 09.05 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated how many members of the European Parliament the U.K. will elect on May 23. It is 73; 43 is the number of members seeking re-election.