UK parties split into pro-Brexit and pro-European forces as May elections near; Scottish Independence raised again
A new “Remain Alliance” is being formed in Britain ahead of the European elections in May with candidates such as Boris Johnson’s sister, Rachel Johnson, and former BBC reporter Gavin Esler leading the pro-EU party. The Change UK Party was formed by a group of eleven sdefecting Labour and Conservative MPs, formerly known as the Independent Group.
At the campaign launch on Tuesday (23 Apr), the party’s interim leader Heidi Allen, revealed a candidate list of 70 potential MEPs including nurses, teachers, and “leading professionals” as well as former armed forces personnel. While criticised by rivals such as Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato as “a single-issue party with no coherent policy platform beyond opposing Brexit”, Change UK wants to demand a People’s Vote and to campaign to stay in the European Union. As Esler summed up, their aim is to “Stop Brexit. Fix Britain. And move on to reform the EU.”
The Change UK party has already tightened scrutiny of their members as two candidates stepped down from running in the elections within days of the campaign launch. Ali Sadjady and Joseph Russo, who were to be Change UK’s lead MEP candidate for Scotland, were asked to step down after their tweets, now deleted, containing derogatory remarks about minority groups such as Romanians and women came to light.
EURACTIV reports that opinion polls put Change UK on 8%, compared to 9% for the Liberal Democrats and 10% for the Greens. Meanwhile, the Tories have 15% while Nigel Farage’s recently formed Brexit party and Labour are topping the polls with both coming in around the mid-20s. This is similar to the aggregate of results from various polls taken by POLITICO, which puts Farage’s party on 19%, behind Labour on 26% and just ahead of the Tories on 17%.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party (SNP) said in a speech made to the Scottish parliament that “Brexit makes change for Scotland inevitable.” She announced plans to propose legislation to hold a second referendum for Scottish independence by 2021, adding that “the case for independence is stronger than ever.” The main reason for this, says Sturgeon, is the UK government failed to look out for Scotland’s interest in the Withdrawal Agreement.
While Scotland’s first independence vote in 2014 resulted in a 55-45 result to remain within the U.K., the majority of Scottish voters, 62%, voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum. To pass the legislation for the second independence vote, Sturgeon and SNP must get the support of the Greens as Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all oppose Scottish independence. Moreover, the Scottish parliament must get the approval of the UK government to hold the poll.
UK’s Brexit delay complicates seat allocations and domestic politics of Member states come to the fore in upcoming European elections
UK’s possible “last minute” participation in the elections, would impact outcome and distribution of seats in the European Parliament.
The EU Parliament’s projection of seats in the next Parliament with the UK parties’ participation shows that the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) are in the lead with 24% and 19.8% respectively. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) would come in at 12.9% followed by European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) at 8.79% and the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group with 8.26%.
POLITICO similarly projects that without the UK’s participation, the EPP still holds the lead with around 178 seats and, about 45 seats more than the S&D group. Together ALDE and Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, would reach close to 100 seats while the ECR would get around 53. According to the current aggregated polling, the Tories and Labour would get 12 and 20 seats respectively and after Brexit, those seats would most likely go to S&D and ECR, giving S&D a slight advantage if the UK particiates. It remains to be seen where Change UK and Brexit party MEPs would sit.
Meanwhile, candidates in Spain’s parliamentary elections clashed over the issue of Catalan independence in a televised debate. The general elections will be held on 28 April. The current Socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez, has been attacked by his right wing and centre right rivals, Pablo Casado of the conservative People’s Party, and Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos, for being open to dialogue with Catalan separatists, and threatening the unity of Spain.
While the issue of Catalan independence and the economy has governed the national debate, the topic of the EU was notably absent from the agenda of all of the candidates. Given the broad pro-EU consensus in the country, the lack of interest in the EU is not due to Euroscepticism; however, it is not a good sign as Spain would be fourth largest member in the bloc after France, Germany and Italy, post Brexit.
Meanwhile, France and Italy are also facing their own domestic battles. In Italy, the populist party 5Star movement is grappling with data protection issues on their online platform modeled on the disruption of traditional politics. Known as “Rousseau”, the online participatory democracy platform, which facilitates direct consultation with members on policy debates and voting, has been fined €50,000 by an Italian data protection authority for failing to protect users’ personal data.
This is deemed to be an effect of EU’s new privacy rules, the General Data Protection Regulation. Davide Casaleggio, the president of the Rousseau platform has declared this a political attack on the Rousseau system. However, the system has also been criticized for experiencing multiple technical failures and being plagued by a hacker.
In France, the new replaces the old at the next European Parliament raising questions about influence. Only 20 out of the 70 MEPs set to represent France are experienced with EU institutions. This is because newcomers like Le Pen’s rebranded party, Rassemblement national (RN), and Macron’s la République en Marche (LREM), are projected to gain many seats.
New entrants from France include Jordan Bardella of RN and Nathalie Loiseau from LREM. Bardella, while young at the age of 23 is an avid follower of Le Pen and has her confidence. If elected, he is set to join the broad Eurosceptic coalition led by Italy’s Matteo Salvini which also includes parties like Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).
As Macron’s leading candidate, Loiseau admitted to running as a far-right candidate in a student election in 1984 as part of Union des Etudiants de Droite (The Union of Rightwing Students). She added that she had not picked up on the political bent of the group and had joined them as they were looking for women candidates at the time.
The new crop of French MEPs is likely to lose out on influence due to lack of Parliamentary expertise. Commentators like Jean-Marie Cavada of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) said that “to have power in the European Parliament, you need to know how to make a transition between veterans and newcomers”. Macron’s En Marche, which was a renewal of the same kind in the French national assembly, has had chaotic beginnings. This will be amplified in EU Parliament as major coalition building and negotiation is necessary to pass any piece of legislation.
At the same time, the race for Commission President is on and lead candidates from EPP and S&D, Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans, are battling it out with each other while disassociating themselves from controversial parties in their grouping. For Weber, it is Hungary’s Fidesz party and for Timmermans, it is Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD).
Both Weber and Timmermans took a swipe at the other’s past association while maintaining that they will not tolerate undemocratic behavior within their political families. Moreover, both said they will take migration on as an important agenda in the next Commission while balancing border control and humanitarian assistance. Other candidates are Jan Zahradil from ECR, the Greens’ Bas Eickhout, Margrethe Vestager from ALDE and the European Left’s Violeta Tomić.
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