July 14, 2017
Guest post by Britt L. Bolin, Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP)
Two months ago, British politics could not have looked clearer. With her party projected to win by 20 points, Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election in an attempt to increase her majority in Parliament. She had just invoked Article 50 at the end of March to start the official process of Brexit negotiations. May had every reason to believe she would succeed; the main opposition party, Labour, was in disarray and consumed by infighting. Yet the British electorate delivered a stunning defeat to May and the Conservatives, who lost their majority in Parliament and were forced to form a minority government with the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Although the British political establishment has focused primarily on the election’s implications for domestic politics, it should be far more worried about the ramifications for Brexit. The election results revealed a nation still divided over the referendum results and a lack of consensus on what Brexit actually looks like for the United Kingdom.
The primary question moving forward centers on the difference between “hard” and “soft” Brexit. “Hard Brexit” generally refers to the United Kingdom giving up full access to the single market and customs union in order to regain complete control of its borders, while “soft Brexit” would entail maintaining a relationship with the European Union and retaining some common market access. May’s campaign highlighted her willingness to accept a hard Brexit, which she assumed would win her votes from hardline Euroskeptics in the Conservative Party and disaffected Labour Party supporters. Her gamble backfired, however, and the election is now being interpreted as a repudiation of the Conservative Party’s hard line on Brexit thus far.
In practical terms, the United Kingdom’s road to Brexit has become much more complicated due to political uncertainty, and May will need to become much more accommodating towards softer variants of Brexit. She has little room to maneuver. Her new coalition partners, the DUP, are pro-Brexit but support a fluid border with Ireland, which necessarily implies close cooperation with the European Union and the absence of strict border controls. The European Union is also in no mood to accommodate the United Kingdom’s domestic political instability by extending the two-year timeline for negotiations.
May’s first big test following the election came on June 19, when the first round of official negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union began. The opening talks reflected the United Kingdom’s weak negotiating position. British negotiators caved almost immediately under European pressure to hold phased talks, meaning issues such as the United Kingdom’s exit payment to the European Union will be discussed before talks on a potential trade agreement begin. This directly contrasted the Conservative Party’s election rhetoric, which emphasized that British negotiators would take a tough line and only enter negotiations after agreeing on a framework for a trade deal. Now, the United Kingdom will have to settle the terms of its “divorce” before negotiating its future economic relationship with the Union.
The two sides will need to settle three major issues before they can negotiate a deal. First are the rights of EU citizens in the United Kingdom and British citizens residing in the European Union. An offer by May to allow EU citizens five years to establish residency status was roundly criticized as inadequate by campaigners for the right of freedom of movement. Second is the question of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. No one wants to see the return of a full border, but a hard Brexit would make a hard border all but inevitable. Finally, the two sides vehemently disagree on the amount the United Kingdom must pay to the European Union when it leaves. Rumors of a 80-100 billion euro payment sparked outrage in London, but it remains completely unclear how such an amount will be calculated.
The June election severely weakened May’s negotiating position on all of these points. Yet as she fights for her political survival, Brexit is unlikely to be her first concern. A recent poll suggests that the British public is just as divided as its new government. Although 70 percent think Brexit should go ahead, the electorate is split on how the government should proceed in the negotiations, with some supporting either a hard or soft Brexit and others advocating for a second referendum.
The election that was supposed to secure a majority for May and the Conservative Party’s vision of a hard Brexit has instead pushed the country into a precarious political morass. The real risk now is that political uncertainty in London endangers the chance of striking any deal at all before the end of the negotiations, which would be catastrophic for the British economy. Only one thing is certain following the chaotic British election: May’s promise of “strong and stable” leadership has instead resulted in the exact opposite, namely a country riven by instability and facing a weaker future outside the European Union.Guest contributor