Amid Brexit Confusion, Britain Faces a European Election it Thought Would Not Happen

By Kevin McCandless | March 28, 2019 | 2:20am EDT
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street after a cabinet meeting on March 25. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

London ( – Amid a day of yet more Brexit drama, political parties here are quietly preparing for European elections that they were never meant to contest.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she would resign and make way for a successor, if parliament approves her proposed agreement for Britain’s departure from the European Union.

“I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party,” she was quoted as telling a meeting of prominent Conservatives MPs.

Britain voted in a referendum in 2016 to leave the E.U. and the agreement since negotiated by the British government sets the terms under which the transition will take place.

However, that agreement has since been voted down twice by large margins in the House of Commons. Many members of May’s Conservative Party have said it does not go far enough in cutting Britain’s ties with the E.U.

The agreement also provides for a so-called “backstop” arrangement between Britain and the E.U., to come into effect by the end of 2020 if the final details of their future relationship aren't agreed upon by then.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – on which May’s government has depended since the last elections – publicly opposes the backstop because its home province, Northern Ireland, would be included in a customs union with Europe, in contrast to the rest of the U.K.

Although some leading Tory foes of the agreement indicated this week that they could vote for it, DUP leader Arlene Foster said Wednesday her party would not.

The House of Commons voted on a series of eight possible alternate future arrangements with the E.U. Though none received a majority, a customs union proposal came close, with 264 votes in support versus 272 against. Another vote on the most popular option is planned for next Monday.

Britain was originally due to leave the E.U. at the end of this month. Under a further agreement reached last week with E.U. heads of state, Britain now has until April 12 to ask for a further extension on leaving the union, if May’s deal isn’t approved.

If Britain does remain in the E.U. for a longer period, it would have to take part in European Parliament elections scheduled for May – something parties have not been gearing up for, since Britain was meant to have left the union by that point.

And time is short: April 12 is the deadline for candidates to be legally registered in Britain for those elections.

A spokesman for the Electoral Commission confirmed Wednesday that contingency planning was well underway for possible European elections.

Most British voters are due to vote in local government elections in May, and an additional vote will now almost certainly be held for the European Parliament.

As early as December, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Gerard Batten called on its members to prepare for these elections, as it was becoming increasingly apparent that they might happen.

While UKIP has been the leading voice for leaving the E.U., Batten said that they had to be ready for the possibility of European elections.

“If the U.K. does take part in the next European Parliamentary elections then UKIP will fight these on the basis of continuing the fight for a unilateral and unconditional exit from the EU,’ he said at the time.

Then in January, Scottish National Party deputy leader Keith Brown announced that his party was “fired up and ready to go,” and had begun candidate selection, putting it a step ahead of the major Conservative and Labour parties.

Earlier this month, the Conservative Party asked its members already in the European Parliament to consider standing again.

Britain currently holds 73 seats in the 751-seat European Parliament.

Had Brexit taken place on schedule, the total number of seats would have shrunk by 46, to 705, with those seats held “in reserve” in case of future E.U. expansion. The remaining 27 former British seats were to have been reallocated to 14 E.U. members deemed to be underrepresented.

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