Europe’s View of the General Election

It should come as no surprise that European leaders, from the national level to Brussels, were paying very close attention to the general election in the UK last Thursday. The likes of Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Paolo Gentiloni, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk were of course very interested in how Theresa May fared in a self-imposed referendum on how her government is handling Brexit. But calling the election back in April, May surprised her European counterparts who thought she already had a political advantage given her majority in Parliament. The result of the election surprised Europe’s leaders even more.

No one would have wagered that Theresa May would cost the Conservatives the majority David Cameron worked so hard to secure in such a short amount of time. Cameron led the Tory party to its first Commons majority since 1992, and the party seemed destined to remain in power given how low Corbyn’s Labour had been polling since his shock leadership victory back in 2015. That said, May called the general election to give her Government its own mandate going into the Brexit negotiations. No one in Brussels anticipated such a decision, as May herself had ruled out calling for an election ahead of the next scheduled one in 2020, and it is fair to say that when the election was announced for 8 June, many in Europe thought it was a risk.

Her Government has had to deal with constant Brexit drama, from a lack of coherent strategy, to a meeting with Juncker in which he expressed his concerns about the UK Government’s negotiating ability, and numerous European Council summits where the UK was excluded and the EU prepared itself for its own negotiation position. Then, of course, the issues surrounding EU-nationals’ rights in the UK after Brexit, whether a trade deal can be agreed upon before or after ‘divorce’ proceedings occurred, and speculation (in fact, certainty) that EU agencies would be leaving the UK and taking their jobs with them, made the British public wary of their Government’s ability to broker the best deal possible.

Europe will look at this result as a mixed bag. The loss of a Conservative majority, and therefore May’s strength in her own Parliament, could force her to make concessions, such as payment into the EU budget to cover the loss of the UK contribution in future, the rights of EU nationals in the UK, and maybe even Single Market access and free movement. The negative impact of this result is that it threatens passage of the final Treaty in the UK if pro-EU parties (Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats) can get enough Conservative defectors to reject the Government’s efforts. Europe is looking to make this event happen as smoothly and efficiently as possible, presenting a unified front on what it expects from the UK both during and after negotiations are complete.

The Government’s first test came on Monday as David Davis and his team met Michel Barnier and EU negotiators in Brussels to open talks and immediately were forced to concede ground. There will be no trade deal until terms of exit are finalised, which is a major blow to the PM, as this was her position from the start. Then she attempted a goodwill gesture at the EU summit in Brussels on Friday by making promises regarding EU nationals in the UK- a major issue for European leaders. It fell flat. The EU is unhappy with the proposed five-year residency requirement before EU citizens can acquire their full rights and there is also concern about the lack of a cutoff date for new arrivals. UK negotiators insist these are starting positions, but with the EU27 firmly opposed to these principles, it will be hard to insist on them in future.

All in all, Europe views the general election in the same way as it viewed the Brexit referendum: as a mistake. May got it tactically wrong, took a gamble, and lost. Her position among Conservatives in the Commons is tenuous as best, with many lawmakers privately annoyed at the loss of their majority and quality parliamentarians. Gains in Scotland were far offset by losses in England and Wales. A Conservative-DUP alliance is openly mocked in the halls of Brussels and European capitals. The best tactic for the EU now is to wait. If May’s team continue to lose ground in the negotiations, Parliament might do well to select a new team. One thing is for certain, however: the EU has got the upper-hand now.

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