Electoral Mayhem: The UK, Brexit and Europe
Europe has clearly been shocked by the UK election results Photograph: (Others)
By Rajendra K. Jain*
In calling for a snap UK elections on 8 June 2017 – the third one in two years –Prime Minister Theresa May hoped to “guarantee certainty and security for years ahead” by significantly increasing her majority in Parliament. What she sought was a “strong and stable” mandate to steer Britain through an uncertain period and ending 44 years of association with the European Union. With a significant 20-point lead, her logic seemed almost infallible at the time of the announcement.
In the desultory six-week electoral campaign, there was no serious discussion on either Brexit or the key bread-and-butter issues confronting the country. Theresa May ran a dismal campaign. She increasingly came across as an uninspiring, insipid leader who was media-shy and clearly uncomfortable when confronted with difficult questions. She was assailed for making a major policy U-turn on care for the elderly. She also came under severe criticism for her poor handling of recent terror attacks in Manchester and London and for her role as Home Secretary when she oversaw cuts to the police force. On the eve of elections, her significant lead had declined to around 7 per cent.
The results of recent general elections represent one of the biggest political upsets in British history and a hung parliament for the seventh time since the beginning of the 20th century. In what became a two-party contest, both the Green Party and the right-wing, Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) were wiped out.
With 649 of 650 seats declared so far, the Conservative Party won 318 seats and loss of a clear majority (down from 331 seats and a majority of 17 seats). The Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party got 261 seats for the Labour Party (a gain of 31 seats and a larger voice in Parliament). The smaller parties won Scottish National Party (35 seats), Liberal Democrats (12 seats), and Democratic Union Party (10 seats).
Theresa May, therefore, grossly miscalculated and ended in a worse situation than in what she was before the elections. By hindsight, the snap general elections seem almost foolhardy: there was no need whatsoever as Theresa May and her party would have remained in office until 2020 if they had not been held.
As the leader of the largest party with the greatest voting share, Theresa May is making efforts to cobble together a government with the support of the Northern Ireland-based Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
While the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker expressed hope that the election result would have “no major impact” on Brexit negotiations, and that divorce talks could start as per schedule on 19th June. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier also tweeted that the “timetable and EU positions are clear” and negotiations should start “when the UK is ready”. Negotiations will have to be concluded by April 2019, i.e. two years after Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was triggered. This is fixed in treaty law.
The EU-27 have mandated a two-stage process: first negotiating the terms of divorce and exit formalities prior to envisaging the architecture of future relations with the UK. London, however, would prefer simultaneous or parallel discussions on divorce terms and future or transitional arrangements in place. There may not be enough time to successfully complete both things.
Brexit is irreversible. But still, there is no clarity whether it would be a “hard” or “soft” Brexit. The former would result in the UK giving up full access to the European single market and customs union, regaining control over borders (and thereby immigration) and freedom to negotiate new trade deals and apply laws within its own territory.
A “soft” Brexit, on the other hand, would result in the UK retaining as much of the existing arrangements as possible with unfettered access to the single market. However, London would not get a voice in EU decision-making: no seat in the European Council, no MEPs in the European Parliament and no Commissioner. Such an arrangement would be somewhat like the one that Norway has.
One of the biggest obstacles to a smooth Brexit is the hardening position of the EU about Britain’s Brexit bill. Brussels’ opening demand has recently been significantly enhanced from the initial €60 billion to €100 billion to cover post-Brexit farm payments and EU administration fees in 2019 and 2010.
Other difficult questions which need to be addressed include the role of the European Court of Justice during transitional arrangements and whether the UK should stay in all or none of the EU’s regulatory regimes.
Election results will make already complex negotiations more difficult. With a hung parliament and a weak prime minister, it would now become extremely difficult to make the kind of painful and controversial compromises necessary for a Brexit deal. It also leaves the new prime minister with very little wriggling room in dealing with right-wingers in her party. She will be compelled to constantly negotiate on most crucial issues both within the party and with the DUP, which prefers soft borders between the north and south of Ireland.
Europe has clearly been shocked by the UK election results. We are heading towards a period of greater uncertainty. There is, as Commissioner Günther Oettinger put it, a real danger that “negotiations will turn out badly for both sides”. Plagued as the EU has been with recurrent crises, the continent would like to concentrate on other pressing problems and revive hope in the future of the European project. Brexit is not merely about the future of the UK, but about the future of Europe as well.
Jain is Professor of European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.