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Holding EU elections would be a fitting end to May's Brexit

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Commentary on the prospect of local authorities having to organise European elections.

Since the British voted to leave the EU in June 2016, debate over how to do it has diverted attention from every other aspect of public life.

This could be deemed forgivable if it had yielded a certain and smooth transition to new a relationship between Britain and its neighbours. Instead the government’s strategy has led to parliamentary stalemate, with the country having already missed the original 29 March departure date.

The government’s planning for a no deal Brexit has been widely judged inadequate – in line with David Cameron’s previous failure to prepare for a leave vote. It is thus no surprise that government plans for an extension have been found similarly wanting.

On Friday, prime minister Theresa May said a proposed extension of Britain’s EU membership beyond 12 April – the departure date, at the time of writing – was “almost certain” to involve European parliamentary elections, taking place on 23 May.

The EU says if Britain is still a member by that date it must take part in the vote. Should the European elections go ahead election notices must be published on 15 April, which leaves little time.

Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, told LGC that the government had advised councils to “do whatever contingency planning is necessary” but not to incur costs as “you won’t be reimbursed for them if there is no election”.

In the sort of pirouette that has dogged this government’s every major decision, the Cabinet Office minister David Lidington has since confirmed in a letter to the Electoral Commission that returning officers will be reimbursed costs for planning for these elections.

Local government officers will find it ripe that Mr Lidington’s assurances come with the rider that public money be used appropriately, and that “thought should be given to what actions are strictly necessary ahead of the start of an election timetable and what can be undertaken on a contingency basis given that circumstances may continue to change”.

After a decade of austerity the sector is well practiced in keeping costs down, and Mr Stanyon said his association’s members “are working with printers and other suppliers to ensure that any costs are kept to a minimum”.

Some assurances are better than none, but there remain questions over whether the government will reimburse councils for staff time or just for a cash outlay. Whatever the answers, central government surely still views its local partners as a release valve for its own pressures.

This is without discussing the possibility of a general election, aired again after Ms May’s promise to resign if her withdrawal agreement was passed. A general election could still happen, although the House of Commons would need to pass a vote of no confidence in the government for this to take place, and no alternative government be formed within the next fortnight, or alternatively two-thirds of MPs could vote to override the five-year fixed term. Mr Stanyon says such a situation would lead to “meltdown” in local authority electoral teams.

No country has ever elected representatives to the European Parliament while on the cusp of exiting the EU (because no country has ever left the EU). While many voters seem bored with Brexit, it’s unclear how many would turn out for what could prove a unique vote in Europe’s democratic history.

Some six million signatures have been added to a recent online petition to revoke article 50, stopping Brexit from taking place. Although the digital marketing agency Kent House found an easy way to add thousands of fake signatures to this position, calling the figures into question, it is likely millions of voters would use European elections to express their views on Britain’s EU membership – in and out.

At the same time, it is farcical to expect voters to elect representatives for an organisation that the government still seeming intends to extract Britain from imminently. European elections have never been particularly well attended in Britain, with historically turnout hovering at around a third of the electorate. This time voters would be particularly justified in wondering what the point is.

With little else to cherish from this situation, the government can at least claim some consistency. Throughout Ms May’s premiership the government has failed to coherently channel democratic will, heaped pressure on beleaguered public services, and messed around its European counterparts.

Making British voters to elect members to the European Parliament for a few weeks or months could be its crowning achievement.

Jimmy Nicholls, features editor

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