Are we preparing for European Parliamentary elections?

The UK Government has now made an ‘Order’ triggering the election process to allow for elections to the European Parliament (EP). These are now set to be held on Thursday 23 May.

Here we examine why the Government took that decision and what it might mean for Brexit.

Extensions of the Article 50 process

The UK is currently due to leave the EU at 11pm on 12 April. The original ‘exit day’ was 29 March, but this was extended. That extension allowed for ‘exit day’ to be 22 May if the House of Commons agreed the Withdrawal Agreement by 29 March. Since MPs failed to agree the Withdrawal Agreement, ‘exit day’ became April 12.

However, MPs also voted to reject leaving the EU with no deal. In the first round of the so-called indicative votes, this option was rejected by 400 votes to 160.

On 5 April, the Prime Minister wrote to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, asking for another extension to the Article 50 process to 30 June. The European Council has been clear that any extension past 22 May 2019 will require the UK to take part in the European Parliament elections taking place across the EU on 23-26 May. And any extension will have to be agreed at the emergency meeting of the European Council on 10 April.

European Parliament elections

There has been some debate about whether extending Article 50 would result in the UK having to hold EP elections.

On 21 March, Donald Tusk said the UK needed to decide by 12 April if it was to hold elections for UK MEPs, otherwise a longer extension to Article 50 would be impossible.

In her letter of 5 April, the Prime Minister accepted this position:

“The Government is therefore undertaking the lawful and responsible preparations for this contingency, including by making the Order that sets the date of the poll.”

The general principles of elections to the European Parliament are set at EU level, but how the poll is conducted is left to Member States.

On Monday 8 April the Government made the European Parliamentary Elections (Appointed Day of Poll) Order 2019. This Order enables the holding of the EP elections. The Order sets polling day for electing UK MEPs on Thursday 23 May. Setting polling day triggers the legal timetable for the election in the UK.

The explanatory memorandum to the Order says:

“It remains the Government’s intention to leave the EU with a deal and pass the necessary legislation before 22 May, so that we do not need to participate in European parliamentary elections.

This Order appoints the date of the European Parliamentary elections, but it does not make these elections inevitable as leaving the EU before the date of election automatically removes our obligation to take part.”

If the UK reaches agreement to leave the EU before 23 May, Parliament may need to approve the new ‘exit day’ as before. ‘Exit day’ is important because lots of legislation will be repealed on that day. This includes all the legislation that allows for the EP elections to happen in the UK, principally the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002and the European Parliamentary Elections Regulations 2004. In the event of this happening, polling day will not take place.

Further Reading

EU ‘exit day’ is changed in UK law, House of Commons Library.

What is “exit day”? Dispelling misconceptions about the extension of Article 50, House of Commons Library.

The Cooper Act and Article 50 – a new role for Parliament?
House of Commons Library.

Neil Johnston is an election specialist at the House of Commons Library.

Image: European Parliament © European Union 2014 – European Parliament

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