European elections have always mattered, although we in the UK have not always realised this.
The European Parliament plays a significant role not only when it comes to voting on proposed EU legislation, but also in making key decisions about, for instance, the people who get to become European Commissioners.
The European elections have also served as a signal as to the state of British politics and public opinion. This time round, they will do the same again and the signaling might be every bit as important, if not more so, than which MEPs get elected.
Whatever happens in the cross-party talks intended to secure a Brexit deal, the government has admitted that the country will have to take part in the European elections scheduled for 23 May.
So, whether we end up leaving before the MEPs we elect can take their seats or not (and it’s still hypothetically possible that we will), the vote will take place.
So, what will it mean? Let’s deal with the practical implications first.
British MEPs will almost certainly take their seats in the European Parliament on 2 July. After that, they will have the same rights as all their peers in Westminster: they sit together within a national group, and these function like parties in the European Parliament.
They will vote on legislation, and they will be required to elect the new President of the European Commission in the autumn.
So the elections will matter to the functioning of the EU. Therefore they will have an impact on the Brexit process, not least because the new Commission President will play an important role in that process.
But let’s be honest. It’s really not the impact on the EU that we care about. Our attention will be focused on what these elections tell us about the state of our own country – and here, there are several things worth looking out for.
The election will provide a test of what the public think about Brexit. And it will probably provide a better guide to this than the local elections, for several reasons.
First, it really is about Europe.
Second, unlikely any other national election, it is held using a form of proportional representation (PR), which makes it easier for smaller parties to win seats.
In the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) used in the general election,small parties can struggle to make headway. For instance, in 2015, UKIP received 3.9 million votes but secured only one MP. The European election therefore puts less of a constraint on those who might wish to vote Brexit, or Green, or Change UK.
Finally, unlike in the locals, two new parties created specifically to compete over the Brexit issue – the Brexit Party and Change UK – will be standing.
Therefore we can expect the outcome to be over-interpreted on all sides. A strong showing for Remain parties will be held up as proving widespread support for another referendum. Meanwhile if Nigel Farage’s new party actually wins (as looks possible), expect to hear much more about how the public are in favour of leaving the EU quickly with no deal.
And it is not just the public who will be listening. UK MPs will be watching the results anxiously, looking for signs that their approach to Brexit might cost them their job in a general election if one of the challenger parties performs strongly.
Remember, this is as much about signaling as it is about seats. And this matters for the Remain side.
Under the model of PR used, there are thresholds making it hard for small parties to win.
Fragmentation between many different parties (Change, the Lib Dems, the Greens, Plaid, and the SNP) might therefore not be the way to maximise seats – but having such a broad choice of ‘remain’ options might well prove the best way to maximise vote share.
The final thing that will be scrutinised is turnout. This has always been low for these elections – a high of 36.4 per cent (1989 and 1994) and a low of 32.4 per cent (1979).
But what will be studied this time is the differences in turnout levels between Leavers and Remainers. If Remainers do what Leavers did in the 2016 referendum – turn out in force to vote – this may well be portrayed as a sign of the new-found enthusiasm for staying in the EU.
What we can’t do is assume the elections to be a proxy for another referendum.
Turnout will be far lower, those taking part will be different (EU citizens could not vote in 2016) and, the kind of fence-sitting at which the Labour Party specialises (does a good Labour performance count as a vote for or against Brexit?) would not be possible.
Nevertheless, there is a tremendous amount to be learned from the EU elections. We might not care too much about what the election is meant to be about, but we should take heed of what the results might imply.