Europhiles in Britain awoke Friday morning with a rare feeling of optimism, hopeful that the poor electoral result for Theresa May’s Conservative Party and gains for Labour and the Liberal Democrats could mean a softer exit from the European Union, or even better, a reversal of Brexit.
But for officials at the E.U. headquarters in Brussels and European leaders, May's election flop complicates yet further an inevitable process which they simply want out the way.
Almost a year has passed since Britain voted to became the first country to leave the E.U. Although it was a decision which saddened many across European capitals, officials have accepted the results of the democratic vote. They have however watched events in Britain with increasing dismay.
First came infighting among Conservatives about the kind of Brexit they wanted and unrealistic expectations about the deal they could get, then an election campaign in which May took personal aim at Brussels and accused the E.U. of meddling in the polls. Now her gamble has backfired, and she has lost her majority in Parliament.
“It is to a certain extent a nightmare – the worst-case outcome,” says Jan Techau, Director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum for the Study of Diplomacy and Governance. “This will create in one way or another a weak British counterpart in the negotiations and that is the nightmare. [European governments] want a counterpart that they can rely on and now they have the worst of all options. They don’t have a government with a decisive majority – they have one with a weakened mandate and uncertainty about who is in charge.”
The E.U.’s treaties lay out a strict timetable for withdrawal. From the triggering of Article 50 – which May did on March 29 , before she called the snap election – there is a two year period to negotiate terms of the exit. Issues such as the outstanding bill the U.K. must pay and how the deal with E.U. citizens in Britain and Britons in the E.U. must be resolved before talks begin on a new free trade deal.
While May has rebuffed calls to resign and is confident of forming a governing partnership with Northern Ireland’s DUP party, there is no clear idea yet of how the election result may have affected her negotiating position. Official talks with the E.U. are due to begin on June 19 , but that timetable is looking increasingly unrealistic.
For Anthony Gardner, the former U.S. ambassador to the E.U. and now a visiting fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute, the sheer difficulties a weakened new government will face could end in the hardest Brexit of all – the negotiating period ending with no agreement. That would mean Britain reverting to trade tariffs under WTO rules and many other economically-damaging measures such as disruptions to air traffic control and customs checks. “In a government that is so divided, are they going to be capable of really getting a policy, negotiating and really sticking to it?” says Gardner.
For the optimists, an election result with greater representation in Parliament from left-wing Labour and the pro-E.U. Liberal Democrats means more voices challenging May’s “hard Brexit” vision, in which she wants to leave the single market. May has to get the Brexit deal through Parliament, and therefore could be inclined to go for a softer deal. But as Gardner warns, without getting the strong majority she wanted, May remains beholden to the Euroskeptics in her party.
“She is still going to be faced with her pretty significant rump of Tories who are ‘hard’, and yet she is going to be leading a minority government that is divided, and I think the clock may just run out.,” he says.
On Friday, officials in Brussels swiftly made clear that the clock is ticking, and that they are ready to go. While Britain has been in a state of Brexit chaos, the E.U. has been the picture of calm, appointing a chief negotiator and publishing detailed negotiating guidelines. “'As far as Commission is concerned we can open negotiations tomorrow at half past nine,” quipped Jean-Claude Juncker, President of E.U. executive branch, the European Commission.
A similar tone came from Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, which represents the 28 E.U. heads of government: “We don't know when Brexit talks start,” he tweeted. “We know when they must end. Do your best to avoid a ‘no deal’ as result of ‘no negotiations’.”
For those hoping that the election may spell an end to Brexit, that option is not really being considered in Brussels. The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, made clear during the campaign that he would respect the referendum result, and E.U. leaders have always questioned his commitment to the European project.
“His very half-hearted pro-European stance has never looked quite convincing to people here,” says Techau, who is based in Berlin. “My feeling is that [the election result] is not going to derail Brexit – it is only going to make more of a mess of it.”