LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Friday that her nation — which, three years into Brexit, is still trying to find the door out of the European Union — will probably hold elections next month for an E.U. legislature that she is desperate to quit.
Election officials are hunting for spots to reserve as polling stations. Soon, the campaign posters will go up. Britain’s political parties will have to take a quick break from their wars over how to leave the E.U. to organize candidates and platforms.
And some of the most ardent advocates of Britain’s departure from the European Union are lining up to run.
“It is in the interests of neither the United Kingdom as a departing member state, nor the European Union as a whole, that the United Kingdom holds elections to the European Parliament,” May wrote Friday in a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, announcing her grudging decision to prepare for the elections anyway.
The topsy-turvy spectacle comes in response to a demand by the remaining E.U. leaders. E.U. treaties require that Britain fulfill all its membership duties so long as it is part of the club. And the other countries fear that any law passed by the new European Parliament could be challenged if Britain were not represented in it. Some British politicians further rationalize that as long as they are in the E.U., they want a say.
May, who has been unable to get support at home for the withdrawal plan she negotiated with the European Union, is at the same time begging fellow E.U. leaders to once again hit the pause button on Brexit, to avoid the chaos of a no-deal departure. Britain was supposed to leave the E.U. on March 29. After E.U. leaders granted May a short reprieve, the cliff’s edge moved to April 12.
Now she has proposed a delay until June 30. That’s two days before the new European Parliament convenes, so, if she gets her wish, it would render the election a meaningless exercise. She said that if Britain manages to ratify a divorce deal before late May, she would seek to depart from the bloc more quickly and skip the vote.
But few people on either side of the English Channel expect the Brexitmakers to be able to get their act together so quickly. May’s Brexit talks with opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn appeared to be making little progress on Friday.
European leaders will gather in Brussels on Wednesday to decide what to do about Britain. Any move must be taken with unanimity, and there have been splits about how strict to be.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in particular, has been eager to usher the country out as quickly as possible, even if London has not approved a divorce deal.
But many European policymakers think the downsides of a chaotic no-deal exit outweigh the drawbacks of letting Britain stick around. Tusk has proposed a year-long “flextension” that could end early if British leaders settle on a divorce approach in the meantime, according to diplomats familiar with the discussions.
That means British lawmakers, including marauding Brexiteers, could linger in the halls of the European Parliament for some time.
“If a long extension leaves us stuck in the E.U. we should be as difficult as possible,” British lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted Friday. “We could veto any increase in the budget, obstruct the putative E.U. army and block Mr. Macron’s integrationist schemes.”
Many members of the European Parliament have been especially looking forward to the departure of British Euroskeptic Nigel Farage, who, when he bothers to show up, has been a thorn during their debates. (Farage’s record of missing roll-call votes is the sixth-worst in the 751-member parliament, according to VoteWatch Europe, a nonpartisan tracking firm.)
Farage was one of the main forces behind the Brexit campaign and has fought for decades to get Britain out of Europe. But on Friday, he said he’s definitely running again to represent Britain in Europe.
“Am I happy about it? No, I’m not, actually, I’ve got many other things in my life I’d like to do. I thought we’d won the Brexit battle,” he told Sky News. “But I’m not going to, after 25 years of endeavor, watch British politicians roll us over. Nope. This is the fight back. And they’re going to be very surprised by what they get.”
Euroskeptic politicians in Europe have long used the European Parliament as a foothold when they could not get elected at home. Hardcore supporters have sent them to Brussels in what are often low-turnout elections. The perks are manifold: a salary of about $118,000 a year plus generous expense accounts. A deep pot of money to hire staff. E.U. funding for their political foundations and activities. Legitimacy.
Across Europe, many of the most prominent anti-E.U. leaders have done time in the European Parliament, including Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen. While in office, they have been able to conspire together to undermine the institution in which they serve.
Farage, who ran and failed seven times for Britain’s national parliament, has held a seat in the European Parliament since 1999. He stunned the British establishment in 2014 when the party he led at the time, the Euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party, won more seats than any other British party.
In Britain, this year’s election results would be seen partly as proxy for public attitudes toward Brexit — much like any other major British election since the E.U. referendum in 2016. Studies have shown that Britons are more likely to identify as a “remainer” or a “leaver” than they are as a member of a political party. The chance to vote for an E.U. body could turn into a shadow referendum on the basics of Brexit.
Political parties and election officials are scrambling to get ready.
The Labour Party said on Friday that it opened nominations for candidates who wanted to contest the election. The Independent Group of lawmakers — also known as the TIGs — recently applied to form a political party so they can field candidates who want to stay in the E.U. The U.K. Independence Party tweeted that it was “ready to field a full list of candidates in every region throughout the United Kingdom and #MakeBrexitHappen.”
Laura Lock, deputy chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said that those who administer elections are busy booking polling stations, ordering poll cards and organizing postal votes. The timing is tight — normally they would start planning for E.U. elections six months in advance, she said.
“There’s the possibility that they could be canceled, but our members have to prepare as if it’s going to happen,” she said, adding, “We will be ready. It’s just people won’t have weekends off and will be working long hours.”
Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.