A good night for Europe but also for the Brexiteers

Connexion speaks to British in Europe coalition leader Fiona Godfrey and sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann about the EU elections in the UK and France

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The British in Europe coalition group has hailed the EU elections as a generally good night for the European Project.

There was a strong showing for pro-EU parties in the UK and many MEPs supportive of the rights of Britons abroad won back their seats.

However, a strong showing for the Brexit Party increases the likelihood that a strongly Leave-oriented prime minister will replace Theresa May.

This will leave the UK facing more uncertainty if the new prime minister is willing to accept a no-deal Brexit, in opposition to the majority of MPs.

At the same time, the elections in both the UK and France saw a decline for traditional parties and support both for nationalists and for pro-EU parties, including greens and liberals.

BiE co-chairwoman Fiona Godfrey said: “BiE is heartened by the number of pro-EU MEPs there will be and really pleased to see some of our biggest supporters have been re-elected. We will continue to work with them to secure citizens’ rights, whatever happens.

“The Brexit Party success is worrying but we saw it coming. Yes, they got a strong vote, especially in certain areas, but pro-Remain parties got more votes in total, so the overall message is support for Remain. “The main reason Labour lost MEPs was because they were not seen as a Remain party.

“I’m heartened by the fact some good Labour MEPs were re-elected, such as Judith Kirton-Darling, Seb Dance, Claude Moraes, and that will send a strong message to Jeremy Corbyn that Labour Party policy has to change.”

She added: “In terms of the Brexit Party, our fear is this will see a very hardline pro-Brexit Tory being elected as the next prime minister, and that will create a new dynamic.

“So I think the risk of a no-deal crash-out has increased again but we can take heart from the support for the Remain parties.

“I hope the message sent to Labour by the electorate will focus minds so they can come up with a response.”

Ms Godfrey said we should not try to second-guess whether or not the EU would allow another extension beyond October 31, for example for a general election to be held in the event of MPs clashing with the new prime minister and holding a vote of no confidence.

She said it is not certain it would be allowed but nor should we rule it out.

“October 31 will be the last day of the current European Commission and a new one will be taking up their posts the following day.

“Does the new president really want their first job to be having to deal with the fall-out from a no-deal Brexit?”

A decision on an extension may have to be taken by the European Council on October 17-18 but she added: “It would be for the commission to pick up the pieces if there’s a no-deal, which would be asking a lot.

“A growing number of countries, led by Ireland, really don’t want a no-deal Brexit and I don’t think a lot will have changed by October.”

Ms Godfrey stood for new pro-EU movement Volt, which won 2% in her country of residence, Luxembourg.

Turnout was up in both the UK (37%) and France (50%), and across the EU as a whole.

Ms Godfrey said this was probably Brexit-related in the UK but also down to the EU Parliament having “reached out and brought in a lot of people that hadn’t voted before”.

She said: “I’m heartened by that and think a lot of them voted for pro-EU parties, which is reflected by a surge for the greens and rising support generally for liberal, pro-EU parties. So it was a good night for the European project.”

In France, the Rassemblement National (RN) won the most votes of any party but it was close-run with the LREM/MoDem list, with both winning 23 seats. The RN won fewer votes and seats than its predecessor FN in 2014.

It is common for the ruling party not to win the EU elections. They are often seen as a mid-term protest vote.

Sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann, author of a new book on today’s political and social changes, La Fin de la Démocratie, said one of the big points that came out in France, and in Europe generally, was the decline of the traditional ruling parties.

“We saw a certain advance for the nationalist, populist, sovereigntist parties, but it was not spectacular.

“There was also the appearance of very diverse parties, such as the Animalist party that gained more than 2% of the vote in France, but also success for parties like Macron’s LREM which are subtly anti-establishment.

“For a number of countries, it means instability and a difficulty in establishing strong government.

“That’s notable in the UK, where there’s a rift between the pro-Brexiters and the pro-Europeans, who also had good results.

“So we see across Europe this breaking off of little parties that are hard to define, and a divide between sovereigntist and progressive pro-EU parties.”

Mr Kaufmann said this division mostly corresponds to two groups in society.

“The Europeans are urban and well-educated, and the sovereigntists are mostly backed by populations who are more rural, who feel more forgotten, the old steel-working former industrial areas, etc.

“We might say that looking at the results, there’s no catastrophe, but it’s worrying nonetheless.

“The first issue is this division and, secondly, the fact that the sovereigntists continue to become more established.

“They came first in the UK, France and Italy, also the Czech Republic and Hungary. In Poland it’s a very conservative, traditionalist party that won, and a virulently antisemitic party won almost 5%. So, I’m also not that reassured.”

No seats were won by lists for gilets jaunes. That may reflect the nature of the movement, which is fragmented and opposed to the political establishment and in favour of direct democracy.