A Brexit delayed until Halloween will be regarded as a nightmare for many. It must seem to the people who voted to leave the EU that escaping the bloc is slipping further and further away. The extension confirms their fears that the government and Brussels are prepared to re-write the rules in order to avoid a no-deal scenario, having previously pledged there would be no extension at all. One of the immediate issues now will surely be the EU elections on the 23 May, which many parties were loath to take part in. But, in some ways, the EU elections could be very helpful for Brexiters. And they could end up with more allies in Brussels than they currently have in Westminster.
On the continent, Italian interior minister and leader of the right-wing eurosceptic Lega party, Matteo Salvini, has been on manoeuvres for some time. His whistle-stop tour of Europe’s capitals has been part of an effort to garner support for the creation of a broad, eurosceptic coalition for the upcoming elections.
This week, the official launch of the movement, dubbed the ‘coalition of sovereigns’ by the Italian press, came in Milan against the glamorous backdrop of Salone del Mobile. Salvini, flanked by members of the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), the Danish People’s party and the nationalist Finns party, introduced themselves as ‘Verso l’Europa Del Buonsenso’ (towards a common sense Europe). Their message (and symbolism) was clear: during Milan Design Week, Salvini and his allies were setting out their new designs for the EU.
Right now Salvini’s group is small, but it will grow. He has since been joined by the Austrian Freedom Party and has been conducting charm offensives in Paris, Warsaw and Budapest. Though the likes of Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban may not yet back him explicitly, at the upcoming elections his coalition is expected to do very well, creating a pull the two politicians will struggle to resist.
The Lega currently hold six seats in Brussels, but polling suggests that this could swell to as many as 40 in May. Take into account that other seats will be taken by the Lega's coalition partners, Five Star, and Italy could return a romping majority of eurosceptics. The two parties do not see eye to eye on everything, and the Five Star have no intention of aligning themselves with the far right in Europe just yet. But Salvini’s movement is still in its embryonic stage, and across Europe disdain for the EU project is growing. A legion of pro-Brexit MEPs could be a welcome addition.
Brexit remains, largely, undefined: neither completely right or left wing. The political leanings of prospective MEPs, therefore, is almost irrelevant, as long as they are Brexiters. And they will find many allies either way in Brussels come June.
And therein lies the possible advantage. Westminster has a firm majority of Remain MPs, and will continue to do so until a general election. Even then, it would only become pro-Brexit if the parties shake up their selection lists, which they seem unwilling to do. But in Europe, anti-Brussels sentiment is growing at a much faster rate, as the higher polling and expected gains of eurosceptic parties demonstrates. Strangely, it is the same complaints about lack of control over European affairs that Brexiters have been making for years, that are rapidly changing the continent into something new, and potentially more sympathetic to the Brexit cause.
Most European eurosceptics do not want to leave the EU – many simply can’t afford to. But they do want to radically change the path it is travelling down, and they need allies. British MEPs could play a significant part in changing the direction Europe is heading, by supporting parties reliant on successes in Brussels to sure up support at home. With Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk nearing the end of their terms, a eurosceptic surge could alter the way the bloc operates sooner than many have predicted.
Some may smart at the idea that, three years after voting to leave, the UK will be returning MEPs to the European Parliament. But Brexit, having won the vote, is now being lost, with the EU and Theresa May both content to extend and prevaricate in order to avoid a hard Brexit. With the potential for an ever extending timeframe, Brexiters should embrace the current situation, rather than sulk at how they have been outplayed, and open up a second front in their war to leave the EU. They may not like being there, but better to embolden those who might help them leave, than refuse to engage. That would hardly be taking back control.