THE parties are gearing up for the May 23 European Parliament elections. And while perhaps Theresa May still has a desperate, fantasy wish that Brexit could happen before then and the elections could be cancelled mid-campaign, everyone else is looking at strategies, polls and tactics.

And as Brexit divisions are set to play out in the UK’s European Parliament elections, spare a thought for the rest of the EU and the impact the UK’s unexpected (by many) participation may have on the EU as a whole.

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The UK has 73 MEPs. In the last elections, in 2014, Ukip came first – making their unwelcome presence felt ever since in Brussels and Strasbourg – followed by Labour then the Tories. This time round, with UK politics mired in its deep Brexit crisis, the outlook is more unpredictable. With Nigel Farage moving off the blocks with alacrity (and a big chunk of funding) in promoting his new Brexit Party, the Eurosceptic leave vote may split between his party, Ukip (which still staggers on) and the Tories.

The National:

A YouGov poll last week suggested the Tories might only get 16%, to 24% for Labour, 29% for the Brexit Party and Ukip (roughly evenly split) and with the LibDems, Greens, SNP, Change UK, and Plaid garnering about 29% of the vote between them.

Given the proportional representation list system used in Britain plus a single transferable vote one in Northern Ireland, how such percentages may play out in terms of seats is an open question. But if for many parties the main purpose of the vote is to hold a proxy EU referendum – a soft referendum as some are calling it – then the percentages are key.

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We have yet to see what Labour and Tories will put in their election manifestos but presumably an inchoate pro-Brexit stance from the latter and perhaps an inchoate more fudged position from Labour.

Labour’s stance, as in the unfolding mess of the last three years, will be crucial. If Labour took a clear position in favour both of Remain and a People’s Vote (with Remain on the ballot paper), then the polling numbers above would suggest a 53:45% Remain-Leave interpretation of the outlook.

But Labour may well fudge its manifesto – perhaps around Corbyn’s preferred Brexit of a customs union (and a say) and sort of aligned to the EU’s single market with perhaps (or not) a confirmatory referendum but without saying if Remain is on the ballot paper.

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If they do, their polling numbers could fall further. If they embrace a People’s Vote and a remain option, their numbers could go up significantly.

It’s still early days and the remain and leave sides are gearing up rapidly – voters will be flooded with information both on Farage’s Brexit Party and on the Independent Group’s Change UK party (once its registration is confirmed) as well as by broader People’s Vote and Brexit campaign machines.

Turnout will be crucial too – usually it’s low in European Parliament elections (about 35% in 2014).

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But if jaded voters, appalled at the incompetence of how Brexit has been mishandled, decide they are either fed up enough to at least vote against the main two parties, or encouraged enough by a People’s Vote (and the six month Article 50 extension) to turnout in high numbers, then the next five and a half weeks could be fascinating. In Scotland, turnout and the politics of remain, and of independence, will also be crucial. In 2014, the SNP came first with 29% of the vote, then Labour at 26% and the Tories on 17% followed by Ukip at 10% giving them one MEP (who’s now joined the Brexit Party).

Unless Labour back Remain, they may well do worse in Scotland this time.

The National:

And with Scottish public opinion having moved even more strongly towards Remain than in 2016 (according to polls), then, as in last week’s Leith by-election, the pro-remain SNP, Greens and LibDems may all be set to do better (whether Change UK will have much impact in Scotland at best an open question but it may attract some votes from pro-EU, anti-independence Labour voters).

Scottish results will also be scrutinised for what they tell us about support for independence in the midst of the chaotic politics of Brexit. And in Northern Ireland, results will be evaluated for how much voters there are shifting even more strongly towards Remain.

Overall, current UK polls have suggested, since early 2018, that there is now a remain majority across the UK – even in England. The May 23 elections will set out a map of the UK’s current fractures and divides over Brexit and over the union.

While the UK continues its Brexit navel-gazing, politicians and candidates across the EU27 are having to rapidly factor into their electoral strategies how the UK’s participation in the elections will impact.

The biggest immediate effect will be from having a chunk of Labour MEPs (currently 20) in the new European Parliament.

The National:

Since the Conservatives left the European People’s party (EPP) 10 years ago, the numbers of Tory MEPs will not impact on the crunch question of the balance between the EPP and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (that Labour MEPs sit with). But Labour MEPs numbers could perhaps tip the balance (especially if they did better than last time).

The two lead candidates for the spitzenkandidat or lead candidate in the elections (one of whom may end up as the next European Commission president) are from the two main European party groups – Manfred Weber for the EPP and Frans Timmermans for the Socialists and Democrats.

Until now, Weber looked to be in the lead. But if Labour shifts the numbers, this could change. Meanwhile, if the pro-Brexit UK votes splits between Ukip and the Brexit Party, that could actually reduce the UK’s contribution to the expected surge in far-right populist MEPs in several EU countries at this election.

The European Parliament’s president Antonio Tajani has been highly critical of the impact of the UK’s Brexit uncertainty on the European elections (including on the number of MEPs, keeping them for now at 751 not the 705 they were due to come down to after Brexit). But for the UK, these elections may be a powerful and necessary democratic moment.

The divisions in the UK Government and in the Commons has led to damaging paralysis, with little support for holding a general election and no Commons majority so far for a People’s Vote. The UK’s European elections can act both as a proxy referendum and as a more general verdict on the state of the UK’s politics. For both reasons, these elections are very welcome.