Stanley Johnson: The Government is missing a trick by talking down the UK's role in EU elections
Former MEP Stanley Johnson welcomes the opportunity of the EU elections, despite “failing to catch the selectors' eye” and not being selected to stand for the Conservative Party himself.
Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, speaking in Japan, says it is an "absolute priority" for the UK to avoid taking part in the forthcoming elections for the European Parliament. Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, describes UK participation as a "pointless exercise". On the Conservative side of politics at least, it is hard to find any voices raised in favour of voting on 23 May.
The sense of outrage is, I am sure, to some extent confected. It is part of the Government’s ‘carrot and stick’ strategy as far as Brexit is concerned. They tried the carrot with Mrs May’s promise to resign as Prime Minister if Parliament approved her deal. That didn’t work, so now they are trying the stick. “If you don’t vote for the PM’s deal, the UK will have to fight the Euro-elections! AARGH!! What a waste of time and money!”
In my view, this is precisely the wrong approach. I don’t think taking part in the European Elections is a waste of time and money. On the contrary, by talking them down, the Government is missing an important trick.
Just take the period from now to the end of October 2019 - the period covered by the most recent extension to the Article 50 deadline.
At present, all eyes seem to focus on the current cross-party discussions in Westminster. That is a mistake. More than a mistake. This is a trap designed to see the Withdrawal Agreement pass on the back of Labour votes. It is also a major, possibly intentional, diversion from the real political priority which is not what the Labour Party says or does but whether Brussels will move to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.
In my view, newly-elected UK MEPs need to make clear that they totally disagree with the idea that the Withdrawal Agreement is done and dusted and not up for renegotiation or even tweaking. And I am sure they will find other MEPs, outside the UK, who deplore the way the UK has been treated over the Irish backstop issue and see the need for change in the Withdrawal Agreement in this area at least.
The new Parliament, flexing its muscles, might even insist on revisiting the negotiating mandate it granted to the Commission back in 2016 so as to achieve a more accommodating approach. In that context, newly elected Conservative MEPs (and I hope there will be many of them) as well as UK MEPs of other parties should make it their priority to build alliances on a cross-party and multi-national basis.
Indeed, even now – before the May 23 election - in their individual manifestos, adopted Conservative candidates and other wannabe-MEPs should insist on their readiness, if elected, to push for a renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement. They could, in particular, cite Sir Graham Brady’s amendment which, adopted by a majority of 317 to 301, called for the Irish Backstop to be replaced by ‘alternative arrangements’. As candidates, they should also insist that such a commitment be included in their own party European election manifestos.
Sadly, in spite of the fact that the Government supported the Brady amendment, it continues to accept the EU’s bald statement that the Withdrawal Agreement is not up for renegotiation. My polite response to that is: ‘Balderdash!’ This is precisely the feeble defeatist attitude that candidates in the European election should be questioning.
Alas, I failed to catch the selectors' eye last week so must make my point here rather than at the hustings. I would like to believe that it was a question of ‘Anno Domini’, but who knows?.
The new European Parliament may not only choose to revisit the negotiating mandate it gave to the Commission re Brexit (or issue supplementary directives).
It will also have to elect a new president of the European Commission and approve the College of Commissioners. There is scope here too, surely, for some effective negotiation and action by newly-elected MEPs?
Of course, the UK’s 73 votes may not all be cast the same way. But if it is a question of putting Brexit to bed once and for all, and in an orderly manner, there may be a surprising degree of unanimity. 73 votes are not to be trifled with, even in a Parliament with (currently) 751 members.
Stanley Johnson is an environmental campaigner and was a Conservative MEP from 1979 to 1984.