What signals will the political antics of the British General Election last week give to our EU negotiating partners? One is that democracy has tamed the seemingly presidential Teresa May. The ‘hung’ parliament has reduced the Tories to minority status, propped up by the 10 MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland on a ‘confidence and supply basis’. This arrangement, which has not been deployed in Britain in over 40 years, means support is offered by the DUP on an issue-by-issue basis. The DUP have yet to confirm these hasty arrangements in an alignment that will accuse the government of breaching its neutrality in Northern Irish affairs, in potential violation of the Good Friday Agreement of 10th April 1998.
What remains clear is that no mandate exists to represent and interpret effectively ‘the will of the people’ so regularly claimed over the past year. What has changed is that the young voters of Britain – unlike in the referendum and other elections – have finally come out in substantial numbers, with the youth vote seeing a 72% turnout. If sustained, this will dramatically impact future UK elections, in which policies have been dramatically rigged to favour the old. Politicians throughout Europe will also see this as heralding a seismic shift in voting patterns.
‘Remainers’ on all sides of the political divide will have renewed confidence to influence the direction of future negotiations – not only by providing parliamentary scrutiny of any negotiated positions but more importantly as the DUP will oppose a “hard Brexit”, in particular with respect to the border with the Republic of Ireland.
Europe’s leaders will want to avoid opens signs of ‘schadenfreude’ but are no less alarmed by the political chaos in London. Michel Barnier, Chief Brexit, the EU Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator reacted calmly, saying that:
“Brexit negotiations should start when the UK is ready; timetable and EU positions are clear. Let’s put our minds together on striking a deal.”
The EU leaders anticipate difficulties ahead. Although united, the EU 27 are pricing in higher levels of uncertainty as a consequence of the unintended consequences of a disastrous general election. “Yet another own goal, after Cameron now May, will make already complex negotiations even more complicated” was the assessment voiced by Guy Verhofstadt MEP, a former Belgium Prime Minister (now the European Parliament’s Brexit Co-ordinator).
His thoughts are echoed by Jean–Claude Juncker, the controversial EU Commission President when he stated that “I hope the result of the election will have no major impact on the negotiations we are desperately waiting for.” From Manfred Weber, chair of the EPP grouping (the largest political group in the EU parliament), came the suggestion that while the “EU is united, the UK is deeply split. PM May wanted stability but brought chaos to her country instead … We are concerned about the situation in Northern Ireland.” He added that “The peace process should not be put at risk.”
How does this all lead/help the style of negotiations in Brussels?
Brussels is not going to change their strategy. They have their brief from the EU 27. But they can contribute to easing tensions. The key principle is to appear reasonable. How can this best be done? Brussels’ Chief negotiator Michael Barnier, has already hinted at delaying talks to give time for the UK to prepare post-election. The two-year deadline to complete negotiations may need to be revisited – although all EU 27 would have to agree, as Article 50 makes no provision for this. This would take account of the UK political debacle and devastating ISIS-inspired terror attacks that traumatised London and Manchester during the election campaign.
Brussels must explain its position at every stage of the negotiations and help to keep UK moderate opinion on side. No one will deny there is an exit bill to pay, which is presently calculated at anything from €40bn – 60bn Euros (some estimates are as high as €100bn). However, this is without calculating the UK’s EU assets, and factoring in capital in the European Investment Bank (EIB).
A constant criticism by European politicians is that the Brussels bureaucracy fails to explain its actions effectively and ‘sell’ itself to European domestic audiences. It is a claim that populist regimes in particular use to highlight the ‘democratic deficit’. The British public, Hungary and Poland, take a jaundiced view of the hegemony of Brussels Laws – relying on the bias of its right wing press for its formative opinions. This is where the Brussels ‘Whitehall’ has failed in the past.
The UK must feel that Europe is not ganging up against it to invoke a ‘Dunkirk spirit ‘. The ideologues who dream of a global future outside the EU must be tamed by those pragmatists at home – overwhelmingly represented in commerce, industry, business and finance as well as the Higher Education and SME sectors.
Equally, the rhetoric and posturing of the British government must stop. May’s government is on notice, with her own future in question. The UK negotiating team cannot rely on the trade deficit with the EU to give them the decisive upper hand in calling the shots. Domestically they can no longer invoke a ‘cliff edge ‘or ‘no deal is better that a bad deal’ approach. The new government – assuming it is stable enough to last – must refrain from a pugnacious stance in proceedings.