“You don’t want me coming back here,” said Nigel Farage in March, when he implored EU officials to deny the UK an extension to the Brexit deadline. Brexit was postponed until October nonetheless and, sadly for the European Parliament that sees new members elected next week, Mr Farage will probably be back in the chamber.
Last week, a leaflet came through my letterbox from which the face of the former leader of the UK Independence party beamed out urging me to vote for his newly created Brexit party, which is “changing politics for good”. These European elections were not supposed to happen, Mr Farage said. But since the Brexit delay was forcing the UK to participate, and the people have been betrayed by the government and by MPs, Mr Farage and his new party have come to the rescue.
Mr Farage’s mission — to destroy Britain’s two-party system — failed in 2014, despite Ukip’s victory in the European Parliament elections. This time he may be luckier: the Conservatives and Labour are both in disarray over Britain’s departure from the EU. The Brexit party is surging ahead of both in the polls.
A party campaigning single-mindedly to never have to sit in the body to which it is elected may sound like the ultimate absurdity. But thanks to the fibs of Mr Farage and others like him, when the Brexit fantasy collided with economic reality, Britain’s political class was paralysed.
Ironically, Brexit disarray could drive greater British engagement in the European elections, where the turnout across the EU tends to be on the low side, and very low in the UK. Indeed, it takes watching the campaign up close to be reminded of what a strange exercise these polls are. Earlier this month, I attended a debate in Florence between the so-called Spitzenkandidaten — the lead candidates of the pan-European groupings in parliament. In principle, the winner will succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president. In practice, it is more complicated.
Video: UK Brexit secretary warns deal has one last chanceVideo: UK Brexit secretary warns deal has one last chance
As I listened to the candidates pitch their vision of the EU, I wondered whether voters were paying much attention or even knew which parties were in their coalitions. The 751-member parliament is the only directly elected EU institution, but it rarely captures the popular imagination. When voters do turn out, they cast their votes on local issues.
Moreover, some alliances endure but others shift. So in some cases it is not clear which grouping your vote will end up boosting. That also means not all anti-establishment parties will be in the same group, which is good news since they are expected to do better than in 2014.
The Spitzenkandidaten process itself is a strange beast — not all those participating in the Florence debate believe in it. Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian MEP who was representing the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE), is part of a seven-member leadership slate. ALDE does not support the process and has no specific candidate for the European Commission presidency.
Despite expected gains for the populists this time around, the frontrunners are Manfred Weber, the Bavarian conservative MEP, and Frans Timmermans, the Dutch vice-president of the current commission who is leading the Socialist bloc.
But whether one of them becomes head of the commission depends only partly on performance. After the elections, the horse-trading between European leaders over the top jobs will begin. If Mr Weber wins but some EU leaders object to him, then Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, could ditch him, preparing the way for a German head of the European Central Bank.
These elections should matter: the EU is at a critical juncture and the European project is under threat from a resurgent populism. The next parliament, however, is likely to be a chaotic theatre of rancorous debate of the type already apparent on social media. At the weekend, Mr Verhofstadt, alarmed at the prospect of Mr Farage’s return, took to Twitter: “Farage is a long sitting, career MEP in Brussels, with the lowest attendance rates. He would rather sign in and go to the pub than fight for British interests in Europe. Sending him back would be insane!”