Researchers in the UK prepare to air their Brexit views in the EU election

18 Apr 2019 | News

Some scientists want to call the whole thing off, while a minority want to leave: emotions are running high in universities ahead of UK’s strange EU election next month

Scientists and research leaders in the UK are preparing to use their vote in May’s European elections to tell the country that Brexit will be a disaster for research and should be called off.  

While the government does not want to hold the European Parliament election scheduled for May 23, it will go ahead if the withdrawal agreement prime minister Theresa May negotiated with the EU is not ratified in time.

“It’s the closest thing that there is likely to be to another public vote on Brexit, as it were. All signs are, it will be a very divided election,” said Murray Pittock, pro-vice principal at Glasgow University.

“Looking at the polls, the initiative is definitely back with Leave,” Pittock told Science|Business.

According to a survey published on Wednesday, the latest test of public sentiment on Brexit seems to be reaffirming a will to leave. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is currently top of the poll, with 27 per cent of the vote, the survey said.

Labour, which remains split internally on its Brexit strategy, has the support of 22 per cent of voters, the Conservatives 15 per cent, Lib Dems nine per cent, UKIP seven per cent, the newly formed Change UK party six per cent, and the Scottish National Party and the Welsh national party, Plaid Cymru, are on four per cent.

“It’s a big opportunity but it looks like Remain are going to completely squander it,” said Pittock. “In the streets and in online petitions, it seems the vote to remain in the EU is much more motivated, but looking at the polls, it’s the Leave voters that are more motivated.”

It remains unclear whether this strange election, which the government is trying desperately to avoid, can shape the outcome for Brexit. Capturing public sentiment and converting it into a plan to leave the EU has been a seriously messy process.

Politicians are in a muddle over how to proceed with Brexit, and there is no majority in parliament for any of the different options for leaving. Nor can they coalesce around a second referendum or revoking Article 50.

Ahead of the May election, those who want to cancel Brexit are calling for a joint ticket of pro-EU candidates.

“I will be advocating for the Remain parties to get together and wipe the floor with the others. Now is the time for unity against insanity,” said Lee Cronin, professor of chemistry at Glasgow University. “I hope some kind of bloc can be assembled, so we all know that a vote for the Lib Dems, Change UK, [and the] Greens is [a vote] for Remain,” he said.

Remain ticket

The indications to date are that the pro-Remain parties will not be cooperating with each other in the election.

“I'd like to say that we have been bombarded by parties telling us that their position will be that we remain and that UK universities should vote for them, but I for one have had nothing,” said Seán Hand, deputy pro-vice chancellor for Europe at Warwick University. “I can note in passing that we face the farcical and predictable prospect of variously pro-EU party factions all squabbling with one another and so splitting the anti-Brexit vote.”

While there may be a few people in UK universities who favour Brexit, cancelling freedom of movement “is simply ridiculous to most academics,” said Nigel Driffield, professor of strategy and international business at the Warwick Business School.

There is a minority of academics who are dismayed that Brexit has been delayed and are concerned politicians are trying to reverse the result of the June 2016 referendum decision.

Graham Gudgin, research associate at the Centre for Business Research at Cambridge University, said it is, “outrageous that we should face any possibility of taking part in EU elections three years after an entirely legitimate referendum which the government promised to uphold. If these elections are held I will support the Brexit party and advise others to do so,” he said.

The research voice

As one of the most prominent advocates for cancelling Brexit, Mike Galsworthy, director of Scientists for EU, has received encouragement to stand for election, but has decided not to do so.

“I'm gutted about it because so many people said I'd be great for it; my partner was pushing for it too. But the best political minds around me advised against it,” said Galsworthy. “The main reason being that it all means nothing unless we actually remain in the EU – and I'm told I'm central to the ongoing Remain campaign. If I were to go for MEP, there are conflicts of interest during the [election] period between running campaigns and running [for parliament],” he said.

Researchers feel it will be a struggle to have their voices heard in May, amid all the usual election caterwauling. Hand says he is not sure academics will risk being as outspoken as Cronin is.

“The degree to which we can advocate openly is circumscribed by being in receipt of public funds. And during the referendum campaign [in 2016], several of us were attacked openly in the press and by B-list politicians for encouraging students to vote – not for whom to vote,” Hand said.

The disenfranchised are pressing the urgency of the vote. Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at Oxford University, is a non-UK citizen seeking residency in Britain.  

“I can’t intervene directly in the European elections,” he said. “But as someone full of admiration for the regional project, both in general and in higher education and science, and deeply regretful about the prospect of Brexit, I hope my UK colleagues will take the opportunity to strongly advocate for EU and for growing European integration in science.”

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