“A mess” was the conclusion of the Dutch state broadcaster NOS. From “going down as the next ‘Iron Lady’” to “more a porcelain lady” was the assessment of Theresa May from one Greek commentator. European reactions to Britain’s general election were blunt, withering, and correct.
It’s not that EU leaders aren’t used to political uncertainty and coalitions. The German leadership is, after all, a coalition of their versions of the Conservative and Labour parties, unthinkable in peacetime UK. Recent elections or referendums in Spain and Italy (amongst others) have failed to produce one winner or resulted in the deposition of the head of government. At least Britain normally sorts its coalitions out sooner rather than later; the Dutch are still haggling over who’s going to be in their government and their election was in March.
But none of these countries have also chosen to leave the EU. None of these countries now have less than two years to theoretically sort out a hugely complicated divorce bill – and clarify the future relationship between themselves and the remaining 27 Member States. Britain is standing alone from the rest of the EU alright, but not in the way it might want.
Whilst it has suited Conservative politicians to carp at the EU for many years, rhetoric that has been ratcheted up in recent months (see Mrs May’s accusation that the Commission was meddling in the British election towards the start of the campaign, when all seemed well), in truth the EU would have preferred, well, a strong and stable British government of whatever stripe. Very few in the EU want Britain to go, but even fewer are going to overlook the referendum result. Brexit means Brexit in Brussels too: they just want to get on with it now. The very last thing that the rest of Europe needs is for a deal to be concluded, everybody to move on, and then a new Government claim that the deal needs renegotiating due to the weakness of Mrs May’s mandate.
There would be a nice historical symmetry in this, as just two years after entering in 1973 the British insisted on re-opening the whole question via a national referendum. But that was an indulgence allowed by the handful of other members then. The vastly expanded EU now could do without the headache, not least because alongside Brexit they’ve got a whole list of other issues to deal with: the Eurozone, the rise of ‘illiberal democracies’ in Eastern Europe, Russia etc. etc. etc.
The EU is also keen to crack on because they feel like they’re in a very strong position. The 27 have, so far, been impressively united in their demands, refusing to allow Britain to try and pick them off one by one (something that was never likely and that illustrates the lack of understanding in the UK about the EU). The context looks good for the EU too. They have managed internal challenges, such as the rise of populism – which has recently taken a battering in the Netherlands, France and, this weekend, Italy. And Eurozone economies are, finally, starting to recover.
So, the immovable force of a self-confident EU, convinced it has the strongest position in negotiations, may meet the wobbly object of a British government. The latter is conscious it has a weak mandate and having done nothing to prepare the British public for the trade-offs involved in leaving the EU – and is also being harangued by virulently pro-Brexit MPs supported by a noisy tabloid press.
The ideal, perhaps, for the UK would be to obtain an extension to Article 50 talks, though that needs the consent of all the other 27 heads of government. If that can’t be done, perhaps a transitional arrangement where, for example, the UK keeps all EU law in place and implements forthcoming legislation in exchange for access to the single market until a final relationship is agreed, can be put in place. But that would also likely involve the maintenance of free movement. Imagine the reaction of some Brexiteers to that.
Negotiating Brexit was always going to be far harder than prominent Leavers – mostly conspicuous by their quietness at this time of national crisis – had ever painted it to be. It’s even harder now. EU leaders, traduced and accused of undermining Britain’s elections by supposedly serious politicians like Mrs May, must privately be enjoying the discomfort of their ‘friend’. If only there was a German word for that.