Pro-Europeans won the battle in the UK but have not yet won the war.

Author: Sophie Heine


The last European elections in the UK were a victory for the pro-Europeans but the rise of the Brexit party was also a worrying result of this polling.

In order to win in the long run, it is vital that pro-Europeans understand the roots of this now entrenched euroscepticism and build a European alternative project.

Overview of the results       

The Brexit party came first with 31.6 percent of the votes and won in every county and region, except in London, conquered by the Liberal Democrats, Scotland, which was won by the SNP and Northern Ireland where they did not present any candidates.

Nonetheless, the anti-Brexit parties won overall more votes (40,4) than the pro-Brexit actors (34,9)[2]. However, altogether, pro-European forces did better than anti-European ones: the Liberal Democrats came second with 20.3 percent share of the votes, thereby sending 16 MEPs to the European parliament – a rise of 13.4 percent and of 15 MEPs; Labour came third with only 14.1 percent, the Greens fourth with a rising 12.1 percent and the Conservatives arrived in the fifth place with a disastrous 9.1 percent[3].

The rise of parties with a very clear message on Brexit and European issues in general – the Lib Dems, the Greens and the Brexit Party – could indicate a long term structural change in voting patterns.

A new cleavage?

Some commentators will downplay the significance of these results by stressing that European elections are very much protest or idealistic votes during which citizens chose actors they would normally not support during national elections. This is supposed to be due to the perceived lesser importance of these elections. They will also highlight the relatively low turn out characterizing such elections[4]: even if it was bigger than in 2014 it was still only 36.7 percent.

Despite these caveats, these elections do seem to have confirmed the clearer and clearer divide between pro- and anti- European forces: the parties which did best were expressing a clear message on the EU.

Certainly, this trend can partly be attributed to the ongoing importance of Brexit in UK politics: both pro and anti-European forces were on opposite parts of the Brexit debate, while the two main parties – Tories and Labour – have had a confused message on that matter since the 2016 referendum.

But we also have to look at this divide beyond this debate and examine its deeper and broader causes.

For several years, the cleavage between pro- and anti-European forces has become more and more salient.

This reflects a broader opposition between those focused on national sovereignty and those who want to go beyond it via supranational integration.

The politicization created by this divide is not a purely identity-based one but is also characterized by utilitarian motives[5].

Beyond the Brexit factor

It is crucial to understand that the vote in favour of Brexit and the predominance of this issue in the UK since the 2016 referendum epitomizes a longer term change in voting pattern that also affects other European countries: namely, the increased awareness among citizens and politicians that, on one hand, national sovereignty has been slowly undermined and, on the other, the EU has not yet replaced it with a European sovereign government.

Put differently: most policies that fall under the demise of the EU are only partially Europeanized and led by a hybrid institutional system lying between the supranational and the intergovernmental.

This state of affairs has generated a division or “sharing” of sovereignty that has slowly weakened the latter at the national level; and this has not been compensated by the creation of a properly European sovereignty. Populist and nationalist forces have demagogically used that context to successfully gather popular support, whereas pro-European forces have mainly defended the status quo.

The pro-sovereignty argument put forward by anti-European can be broken down in various sub-arguments, such as a focus on  controlling immigration flows, rebuilding some macro-economic agency, getting a sovereign national security back or strengthening national democracy.

The relevant question for pro-Europeans is the following one: what can they propose to counter these arguments and beat the anti-Europeans in the long run?

Their excellent results of the last poll could indeed be a contingent reaction to the Brexit debate and, more precisely to the confused and unclear stance of both the government and the opposition. In order to keep these good results and improve them, pro-Europeans will also need to build a convincing alternative to the anti-European arguments.

In need of a European project

In the short and medium term, pro-Europeans should use the momentum created by this polling to keep mobilizing for a people's vote or second referendum, to boost their support among the population and to build alliances on particular policy issues.

But this will hardly be sufficient in the long run. To win over a majority, pro-Europeans will have to build a critical and yet positive message regarding the EU that goes beyond the defence of its status quo.

For that purpose, rehabilitating the notion of sovereignty at the European level could be the core of an alternative project. In order to face the urgent global challenges such as climate change, security threats, financial risks and migration flows, the EU needs to be provided with a properly sovereign government (and the latter should be democratic and conform to the rule of law)[6]. Such a project could ground an alliance among various pro-European forces in the UK.

Of course, this would need to be linked with national politics: in order to recover some political agency at the national level, European sovereignty should be created in certain crucial fields – macro-economic policy, security policy, environmental policy and borders management.

[1]   Dr in Politics and Author.

[2]   https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48403131

[3]   https://www.businessinsider.com/european-election-results-lib-dems-and-greens-lead-remain-surge-2019-5?r=US&IR=T; for results per region see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48403131

[4]          A. H. Schakel, “How to analyze second-order election effects? A refined second-order election model”, Comparative European Politics, November 2015, Volume 13 (6)

[5]   S. Hutter, H. Kriesi, E. Grande, Politicising Europe: Integration and Mass Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016.

[6]   Sophie Heine, For a sovereign Europe, Peter Lang, Oxford, to be published.


Sophie Heine

About the Author

Sophie Heine

Sophie Heine is a Dr in Politics, research associate to Oxford University (Centre for International Studies - DPIR) and a communication and engagement officer for New Europeans.

She completed her PhD at the Institute for European Studies in Brussels (Universite Libre de Bruxelles, with the Belgian Fund For Scientific Research- FNRS), followed by a post-doctoral research at Balliol College (Oxford University). She was also associated to St Anthony's college (The Centre for European Studies - Oxford University) during part of her PhD. She then lectured for a year (European politics and International Politics) at Queen Mary, University of London.

She has recently worked in Oxford as an administrator for Oxford International College and Oxford University Press and as a researcher for the Brussels-based think tank, the Egmont Institute.

Apart from more applied skills in engagement, outreach and communication for various civil society movements, she has developed expertise on the following topics: political ideologies, euroscepticism, post-nationalism, cosmopolitanism, European federalism, EU institutions and policies, cultural diversity and gender equality.

“I whole-heartedly share the pro-European principles upheld by New Europeans. New Europeans’ actions for the European citizens living in the UK is remarkable and is bound to become even more visible and influential both in the UK and in the rest of Europe”.

View all articles
Sophie Heine

About the Author

Sophie Heine

Sophie Heine is a Dr in Politics, research associate to Oxford University (Centre for International Studies - DPIR) and a communication and engagement officer for New Europeans.

She completed her PhD at the Institute for European Studies in Brussels (Universite Libre de Bruxelles, with the Belgian Fund For Scientific Research- FNRS), followed by a post-doctoral research at Balliol College (Oxford University). She was also associated to St Anthony's college (The Centre for European Studies - Oxford University) during part of her PhD. She then lectured for a year (European politics and International Politics) at Queen Mary, University of London.

She has recently worked in Oxford as an administrator for Oxford International College and Oxford University Press and as a researcher for the Brussels-based think tank, the Egmont Institute.

Apart from more applied skills in engagement, outreach and communication for various civil society movements, she has developed expertise on the following topics: political ideologies, euroscepticism, post-nationalism, cosmopolitanism, European federalism, EU institutions and policies, cultural diversity and gender equality.

“I whole-heartedly share the pro-European principles upheld by New Europeans. New Europeans’ actions for the European citizens living in the UK is remarkable and is bound to become even more visible and influential both in the UK and in the rest of Europe”.

View all articles
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