As the Brexit deadline approaches, I've seen reporting recently over the British government using participation in the European Parliament elections as a threat to convince MPs to not force the government to seek a lengthy extension. For example, this snippet from a Bloomberg article (emphasis is their heading):

Govt Doubles Down on MEP Election Threat (12:15 p.m.)

Speaking to reporters, May’s spokesman James Slack also hardened the government’s language about the likelihood of a longer Brexit extension leading to the U.K. holding EU parliament elections.

“If we’re unable to win a meaningful vote this week, then the prime minister will have to seek a longer extension. That will inevitably involve participation in European parliamentary elections.”

As someone not from Europe, I am uncertain why this is a viable threat to get MPs in line? I understand from What would a delayed Brexit mean for the 2019 European Parliament election? that the process might be messy (almost regardless of what the UK Parliament does it seems), but what in particular makes participation in the MEP Election so disconcerting to MPs that it could be construed as a threat, rather than a inconvenience to be put up with until the final Brexit agreement is settled upon?

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    The total paid from the UK Government’s Consolidated Fund for the costs of the May 2014 European Parliamentary elections was £108,689,344. Imagine trying to spin the 2019 costs to your constituents when the country was due to have left weeks earlier – Dave Gremlin Mar 18 '19 at 17:38
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    Of course, leaving the EU is completely uncosted and has already long exceeded that number. We spent £33m in mandatory compensation to Eurotunnel alone for Grayling's mistake. – pjc50 Mar 18 '19 at 18:11
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    @pjc50 - I agree, but it's a matter of perception and in political situations that trumps reality – Dave Gremlin Mar 18 '19 at 18:47
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    @DaveGremlin That's slightly over £1/person. Impressive that elections are so cheap to organise. – gerrit Mar 19 '19 at 16:27
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    @gerrit. It is indeed, though it's over £2 per voter (there were 48.6m registered to voter in the 2017 general election). I'd expect the just postage on all those ballot cards to eat up a lot of that!!! Which politician or journalist looks at the details though? Headlines and soundbites sell – Dave Gremlin Mar 19 '19 at 16:40

Holding an EP election is an unavoidable physical fact that's hard for members of the public to not notice. For example, every registered voter will be sent a polling card.

This makes it absolutely unambiguous and un-spinnable to the public that Brexit isn't happening yet.

The government strategy is based on the assumption that the public support Brexit electorally, and therefore it not happening will cause them to do badly. Having EP elections forces them to actually fight an election. Although EP elections don't affect Westminster, everyone in the press and most of the political commentariat treat them as a poll on popularity of the Westminster parties.

It seems likely that the Conservative party would do badly in this EP election which they don't want to fight. That would in turn increase their chances of losing a UK general election, which is an increasingly likely prospect for a government that can't pass its most important policy.

(There is also the maximum-banter chance of having to fight both elections at the same time)

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    "...based on the assumption that the public support Brexit electorally..." That may be based on the fact that remain voters seem to be totally unmentionable these days. – gnasher729 Mar 18 '19 at 22:56
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    Of course it's not an "unavoidable physical fact", it's a bit of procedure that wouldn't happen at all without human cooperation. – hobbs Mar 19 '19 at 3:54
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    Not "physical" as in the laws of physics, but physical in the sense that the public can observe it happening directly without media intermediation. Holding an election while trying to claim that it wasn't happening would be extremely weird even by Brexit standards of denial. – pjc50 Mar 19 '19 at 11:04
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    Funnily enough MPs also want to avoid a no-deal Brexit, as the British public would then see for themselves what a disaster that would be, at least in the short term. – JonathanReez Mar 19 '19 at 15:56
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    +1 for the max-banter note. Is it worth mentioning politicians' fears about exactly how the country that brought us both Brexit and Boaty McBoatface would vote in a dangling EP election? – Phil H Mar 20 '19 at 10:55
  • Many UK politicians want Brexit. They are against any move that would make Brexit less likely or postpone it.
  • Many UK and EU politicians believe that Brexit can only be postponed beyond the election date and/or the first session of the parliament if the UK votes.

So voting would "open the door" to a much longer extension. Not voting would impose a "hard" deadline that could not be shifted easily. A Brexiteer would want no voting.

On a related note, and I haven't heard that much in the news, if the UK is still in the EU by the time the next multiannual financial framework then people might argue that the "divorce bill" has to be revised upwards -- after all, the UK would be at the table when the next 7-year projections are passed.

  • yeah. And as Brexit is to happen before the new EP takes office, with or without May's requested new deadline, taking part in the EP elections will show everyone that there will be no Brexit even by the "adjusted deadline" in June, and likely no Brexit in the next 4 years, which is the term of the new EP. – jwenting Mar 21 '19 at 4:49

It's a threat for the Conservative and Labour parties, as they both also field candidates in the EU elections. It's likely that they will be severely beaten by pro-leave (UKIP) or pro-remain (Lib Dem) MEPs. Which will be humiliating for them; and embolden those other parties when it comes to national elections.

It's also threatening to many MEPs from other states, as they fear that the presence of a large number of anti-EU MEPs will disrupt proceedings in their parliament, taking the focus away from issues that they see as much more important.

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    Note also the launch of the Brexit Party which is intending to field candidates in every UK constituency. Initial polling is shaky, but suggests that they might win a clean sweep. – Valorum Mar 20 '19 at 9:18
  • While the argument makes sense, it mostly looks like a duplicate of the top-voted answer (which says "It seems likely that the Conservative party would do badly in this EP election"). And the point about MEPs from other states, while true, does not seem relevant to the question asked. – sleske Mar 20 '19 at 9:42

The UK has taken steps to leave the EU based on a referendum in which the majority voted to leave. There have also been suggestions that there might be an attempt to not go ahead with Brexit all together. It's mostly a cynical view of politics that can be found, for example in this quote in the FT (from a man in a pub):

“We do not have a government any more. We have always voted Conservative here. But all the MPs are self-serving bastards. They are not thinking about the country, just themselves,” he pronounced.

Having an EU election now will empower that cynical sentiment and deteriorate what little faith the UK public has left in its elected officials. For obvious reasons, that's not something (most) UK politicians want.

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    "might be an attempt to not go ahead with Brexit all together" - well, there isn't a sincere attempt to find a workable Brexit, and No Deal would be a "Winter of Discontent"-grade disaster, and the Speaker has just this minute shot down the final attempt to pass a deal that nobody would vote for, so I think it's quite possible it won't go ahead. – pjc50 Mar 18 '19 at 17:10
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    @pjc50 it will go ahead, because for it not to go ahead requires the UK to withdraw its notice to leave the EU in accordance with its own constitutional procedures. For that to happen, the UK parliament would probably need to vote in favour of withdrawing its notice to leave, something that seems unlikely. – JJJ Mar 18 '19 at 17:18
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    The court case established that approval was required only because it would change UK law. Not leaving would not change the law. Going to the ECJ on this would be grimly hilarious. – pjc50 Mar 18 '19 at 18:09
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    @pjc50 please consider this blog or consult the actual ruling (don't have a link at hand). In particular, consider this excerpt from the blog: "This section concludes with the position that unilateral revocation should be legally permissible if it is in accordance with the constitutional requirements of the Member State that has made a notification". – JJJ Mar 18 '19 at 18:14
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    @pjc50 note that to withdraw might also require a change in UK law, in particular, the law you reference might have to be withdrawn. – JJJ Mar 18 '19 at 18:15

I wished to add a point to other answer. Something that's often lost in UK debates is that Brexit negotiations are negotiations. As in the EU actually has an opinion on most of the options available to the PM & the parliament.

And any extension would have to go through the EU to be approved. ALL the EU, this needs an unanimous agreement from the 27. Some might ask for conditions, others could refuse outright. The elections are a very good argument against a long extension for most EU countries. It would be very strange for 'us' to agree to such a thing without some conditions.

tdlr : EU has a veto on any extension and might not agree to one that allow the UK to participate in parliamentary elections.

cf: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-47557216 for an idea of how varied opinions accross europe might be on the issue

  • On the other hand, the EU has negotiated in bad faith, so why should the UK give up anything at all? – Joshua Mar 19 '19 at 23:11
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    @Joshua This might not be the place, but i strongly disagree with that. EU stance has been very clear since beginning of the Brexit process. I don't think they lied or tried to lead the UK to its doom. From where i stand the only 'bad' thing they have done to the UK is to stay intransigent on some core concept of the EU (no cherry picking the 4 freedom, no frontier check = regulatory alignment, respecting previously agreed upon budget). So i think we're missing some common ground there, could you point at what you're describing as bad faith ? – CaptainAwesomeMcCoolName Mar 20 '19 at 9:47
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    @CaptainAwesomeMcCoolName: My thoughts exactly, and an interesting question. However, the comments are definitely not the right place to discuss this. Consider asking it as a question (or I might do it :-) ). Something like "Why do some people in the UK feel the EU negotiated in 'bad faith'?" . – sleske Mar 20 '19 at 9:52
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    @sleske like most UK perceptions of the EU, that would be down to misleading press coverage. – pjc50 Mar 20 '19 at 12:48
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    @Joshua The EU have negotiated on behalf of the remaining 27. They told us their "red lines" in advance, and they stuck to them. They've even been a little flexible on their red line about the border with Ireland. On trade, we were offered similar terms to Norway. So what have the EU done in bad faith? – Graham Mar 20 '19 at 22:48

It appears to be a threat towards the EU - "give us more concessions so we can present a better deal to the UK parliament."

It does seem to miss the point though, that the EU decides whether to honor any requests for an extension. There's nothing inevitable about that election. But when did the UK ever acknowledge that the EU had a say in Brexit?

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    How does that threaten the EU? – JJJ Mar 18 '19 at 17:08
  • @JJJ: The elected MEP's would be in place for a few months, participating in the 2020 budget setting which will no longer affect the UK. – MSalters Mar 18 '19 at 17:10
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    @JJJ it doesn't threaten the EU, really – pjc50 Mar 18 '19 at 17:11
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    @MSalters if the EU were to perceive that as a threat, they could just not grant the UK extension on the article 50 period. In fact, any EU27 member can decide not to grant that extension without needing to justify their reason for doing so. – JJJ Mar 18 '19 at 17:22
  • I would be about 99% sure that a 3 month extension (any extension making UK elections barely necessary) will be rejected. An extension must either end just before elections, or be really long, a year or two. – gnasher729 Mar 18 '19 at 22:59

Another aspect of that "threat" scenario I feel is missing in the answers posted so far is that organising an election takes some effort. Given that the original plan of the British government was to not be part of the EU any more by the time the elections happen, Britain is simply not very well prepared to have EP elections. All the ontifications still need to be printed and sent, poll sites need to be reserved, staff needs to be organised and so on.

On the other hand, even if the Brexit negotiations are extended, the consensus so far still seems to be that Britain is going to leave the EU rather soon. The elected for the EP would thus only be in office for a couple months (until the Brexit actually happens), which is not exactly an incentive for anyone to run for election in the first place.

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    which is not exactly an incentive for anyone to run for election in the first place. It'd be interesting to see how that works with MEP pensions, that might make it appealing for some. ;) – JJJ Mar 19 '19 at 15:29

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