European elections 2019: When does the UK vote - and why are we even taking part?

Peter Foster
Brexit has now been delayed for six months - which means the UK will now take part in the European Elections - AFP

With the date for the European Elections coming closer, we take a look at when the vote is, why we are still expected to take part and what it means for British MEPs.

Here's everything you need to know ahead of polling day in May.

When is the vote?

The polls will take place in the UK on May 23 2019.

When do we find out the results?

Voters in Ireland turn out the following day. Those in the Czech Republic, Latvia, Malta and Slovakia vote on May 25 and the remaining 21 EU nations cast their ballots on May 26.

The results from every nation will be released on the evening of May 26 after the last polling station in the continent is closed.

Why is the UK taking part?

Because Brexit has now been delayed for six months, with a new date set for October 31 2019, which means the UK must now participate in EU polls.

Seems crazy if the UK is leaving anyway. Can EU polls still be avoided?

Yes, but the timetable is very tight indeed. Leading Cabinet members are determined to avoid holding the elections, but that will mean Parliament agreeing on the Withdrawal Agreement well before the end of April.

The EU are insistent that the Withdrawal Agreement must be approved and all of the implementing legislation must be passed to avoid the need to hold EU elections.

Given the generally low expectations of an imminent breakthrough in cross-party talks, the overwhelming likelihood now is that the UK will take part in the polls.

But doesn’t that mean British MEPs might only sit for a few weeks or months?

Perhaps. But also, perhaps not since no-one knows how Brexit will play out. And it is because of that uncertainty that the European Commission has insisted that the UK participates in the European Parliamentary elections.

Their fear is that if the UK revokes Brexit, or decides to hold a second referendum and the UK had failed to participate in polls, then the UK would be in breach of its obligations to hold elections and to give all citizens the right to democratic representation in Europe.

Failure to do so, risks invalidating the constitution of the new EU institutions, and all the decisions it makes, causing legal mayhem. As a result it was deemed safer for the UK to hold the elections, even if that meant MEPs sitting for a few weeks.

Is it even possible that MEPs could be elected, but never take their seats?

Yes. The European elections will be completed by May 26. But the European parliament does not sit for the first time until July 2 - which leaves a month for the UK to pass the Brexit Withdrawal deal and necessary implementation to obviate the need to take seats in the Parliament.

Under the terms of the ‘flextension’ granted to the UK, as soon as the Brexit deal is passed, the UK will cease to be an EU member and so not need to have MEPs.

It is also quite possible that UK MEPs will have to show up to the European Parliament on July 2, break up on July 25 and then take a well-paid holiday in August, before reconvening on September 2.

The Parliament does not formally sit after the summer break until September 16 and will spend the next two or three months appointing a new Commission. All through this time the UK is free to leave as soon as it has passed the Brexit divorce deal.

What happens then? Won’t the entire European Parliament need re-electing?

No. The current European Parliament is comprised of 751 seats, of which 73 are for UK MEPs. This will remain the composition of the Parliament for as long as the UK remains a member of the EU.

As soon as the UK departs, the it will have to be reconstituted, becoming a 705-seat Parliament, with 27 UK seats being re-allocated to other EU nations in order to re-balance the Parliament.

Spain and France who get five more seats, Italy and the Netherlands get three, Ireland two and a host of other states - Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Croatia, Sweden, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, Poland - receiving one more seat.

Different countries have different ways of filling those extra seats - some use lists, some use appointments, some hold by-elections - but all are legally bound to do so. This means that some MEPs elected on May 23-26 will be stuck ‘in the waiting room’ until the UK leaves.

What does Europe think?

Difficult to say what ‘Europe’ thinks when it is comprised of 28 different member states, but it was clear from the European Council in April that the majority of EU leaders would prefer that the British were not taking part.

They are perfectly aware that the polls - forced on them by legal constraints by the European Commission - could turn into a mockery of European democracy which is already struggle to engage electorates across the bloc.

In some quarters, however, UK participation is welcomed. If the polls hold up, then Labour could capture 33 or more seats, which would be a huge boon for the Socialist grouping in the European Parliament.

If the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban defects from the dominant centre-right EPP grouping, it could even mean the Socialists forming the largest bloc in the Parliament - a largely-overlooked consequence that could change the political calculations in the search for a new European Commission president to take over from Jean-Claude Juncker.

So the elections won’t be completely irrelevant?

No, and certainly not from a British political point of view. They could be a sounding board for a host of other domestic political issues, including the viability of new political parties - and the sustainability of established ones.

Early UK polls (Opinium for the Guardian, 9 to 12 April 2019) show Labour in the lead with 29 per cent, Tories trailing on 17 per cent but the two Brexit parties - UKIP and the new Brexit Party - collectively polling at 25 per cent.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are back at 10 per cent, but the new anti-Brexit Change UK party formed by a breakaway group of cross-party Independent parliamentarians is showing just 4 per cent support.

In short, the elections will provide a mirror for the UK’s increasingly fractured, and fractious political landscape.

The Brexit issue also means turnout could increase from the desultory 35.6 per cent in 2014 to something closer than the still-feeble 43 per cent EU average.