Despite the best efforts of Theresa May to avoid a referendum on Brexit, it appears that the country is nonetheless heading towards one. With the EU offering the UK a “flextension” until October 31, the UK will now be forced to take part in the European Parliamentary Elections or risk crashing out of the bloc on June 1. An event that the Prime Minister called “unacceptable” not three weeks ago is now rapidly approaching, and it is hard to see how it will not become a proxy vote on the nation’s singular political focus – Brexit.

Schrödinger’s election

Nearly three years after the UK first voted to leave the EU, and over two years after Article 50 was triggered, Parliament has still not agreed on the shape of its preferred exit strategy. As a result, the European Parliamentary elections scheduled for May 23 are now a reality and parties large and small are gearing up to field candidates for an election they may not fight.

The second oddity is with the electoral system itself. The UK is used to a first-past-the-post electoral system which rewards larger parties with concentrated groups of supporters and punishes small parties with thinly spread national support. By contrast, the EU elections take place under proportional representation, which means Britain’s latest cohort of small parties has the chance to make a real impact. ChangeUK (aka The Independent Group) and The Brexit Party – who launch their campaign today – are approaching these elections with relish, while Britain’s two major parties are far more apprehensive.

The reason for the shift, as with so many others, is of course Brexit. This election will be a proxy vote on Europe – the first major democratic event since the 2017 general election when Brexit still seemed like a distant concern. With red lines in full retreat, this election will remain the perfect contradiction until it takes place or doesn’t – much like Schrödinger’s cat.

Nothing has changed (yet)!

The Conservative party are undoubtedly facing the greatest struggle. The European issue has seen the demise of the last three Conservative Prime Ministers and the divisions are deep. Conservative members are clearly unhappy with their party’s handling of Brexit and are reportedly unwilling to put work into canvassing for an election they do not want. The mood amongst Conservative contenders is equally bleak, and there is doubt about whether they will even be able to field candidates for all of the 70 slots they traditionally contest. Those that do take up the mantle will need to face the ire of their own party members and the British public…a task the leader of the Conservative MEP delegation is not looking forward to.

Labour are equally concerned, but already has 16 of its existing 20 MEPs confirmed as seeking re-election. Their Brexit stance has been constructively ambiguous at best, but recent polling from the Eurosceptic OpenEurope suggests their vote share will actually increase to 37.8% (from 25% in 2014) and see them comfortably secure the largest mandate.

Of the remaining smaller parties, the proxy referendum is not just implied, it is policy. Nigel Farage’s old and new parties (UKIP and The Brexit Party respectively) will seek to whip up one last tide of anti-EU sentiment to cement the result of the 2016 referendum. The Remain-supporting LibDems, Green Party, and newly formed ChangeUK will seek to portray the election as the last chance to show the government that the country has changed its mind.

Elections to the European Parliament in the UK typically suffer from low turnout and are often seen as a way to punish the establishment for failing to listen. If ever that sentiment had fuel, it is now.

Once more unto the breach

For British Businesses, the ask, as it has been for three years, is to simply wait. The latest extension gives them some breathing room to make preparations, but the date will leave many spooked. The end of October will see companies undertaking final preparations for the Christmas shopping period and any unexpected change of circumstances could have serious implications.

For the UK’s newly elected MEPs there will be fresh challenges. They will be entering a European Parliament that did not expect them, to do a job that could end at any moment should an exit deal be agreed. There have been calls from zealous Brexiteers for the new British MEPs to be as difficult as possible – a move we believe will do more harm than good. It is important to remember that this is just the first stage of the Brexit process and that the trade talks in phase 2 will, if anything, be more difficult.

The European elections could, despite their unique circumstances and uncertain outcomes, prove decisive. With a month of campaigning ahead, all of the major parties will be forced to listen to voters, to hear their concerns, to engage and to learn. The impacts of the choice’s parties have made will be quantified and could maybe, just maybe, be enough to break the gridlock.

Compromise remains key

In our last post, we focused on the need for compromise in British politics and, despite changing circumstances, it has become something of a watchword among politicians and pundits. Talks between the Conservative and Labour parties are a positive move towards finding a solution, and both parties seem genuine in their ambitions. If they can reach a consensus then there is a real chance that Britain will be able to exit the European Union on a platform with cross-party support.

If they cannot, there should be some limited relief felt on both sides of the Channel that the risk of a no-deal exit seems increasingly unlikely. However, the road ahead remains uncertain and the European Parliamentary elections may yet prove to be just the first of two unplanned national votes facing the UK in 2019.