Friday, 9 June 2017

So where does this leave Brexit?

Theresa May scored an own goal with her disastrous decision to call a snap UK election, but her humiliating defeat was not a plea from the public to stay in the EU. 

When Theresa May called a snap election in April, it was a nakedly opportunistic move. 

The opposition Labour Party was in disarray, 20 points behind the Conservatives in the polls. Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, did not command the loyalty of his MPs and had only held on to his position because of grassroots support. 

The UK Independence Party essentially had no raison d'etre any more. The one-issue party had gotten their wish - Britain was leaving the EU. The Scottish National Party looked to be in trouble in Scotland as well. May saw an opportunity to hoover up Labour, UKIP and SNP votes and give her perhaps the largest majority in UK history - making the country effectively a one-party state. It would be a big improvement from her existing situation, having inherited a razor-thin majority government from David Cameron.

But things did not go according to plan for Mrs May. She proved to be one of the worst campaigners in recent British memory, committing a litany of errors including refusing to participate in a televised debate and performing a U-turn on social care. More generally, she seemed uncomfortable on the campaign trail and awkward with voters.

The result yesterday was a political earthquake. Though they had been set to pick up as many as 100 seats at the start of the campaign, instead the Tories lost 12 seats. They are still the largest party, but May lost her majority. She is now scrambling to stay in power by allying with the ultra-conservative Northern Irish Protestant party the DUP. Many Tories are calling for her to resign, and she may not last the day.

Bemused Brussels

Needless to say, the EU27 are looking on today in bemusement. May's claim that an increased majority would give her a stronger mandate in the Brexit negotiations was always dubious - it would have made little difference to her EU counterparts. But her demotion from a majority to minority government, inconceivable just two months ago, will have a profound impact on these talks.
Right now the EU doesn't even know who will be conducting the talks that are scheduled to begin in one week. And they don't know if the negotiating mandate is going to suddenly change.

The result makes a mockery of May's campaign slogan of delivering "strong and stable" leadership. It is the worst possible outcome for the Brexiteers. "The EU is united, the UK is deeply split," observed Manfred Weber, the leader of Europe's centre-right EPP group and a close ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel, today. "PM May wanted stability but brought chaos to her country instead."

Unclear mandate

Weber is right that the UK is clearly deeply divided. But anyone claiming yesterday's vote was a public rejection of Brexit would be way off the mark. 

Corbyn, who was lukewarm in his support of the remain campaign last year (and who some suspect secretly voted to leave the EU because of his far-left views), promised during this campaign to maintain the British plan to leave the EU. He said he would reverse course on May's "destructive" plans for 'hard Brexit' (a complete withdrawal from the EU single market) but he provided no details about what he would do differently. 

In fact, Corbyn promised during the campaign that he would maintain May's position of ending EU free movement rights in the UK - the right for all EU citizens to live and work in the UK if they can find a job. This meant that he would be in the exact same position as May, with no choice other than to pursue a hard Brexit. The EU has made it clear: no free movement, no single market access. 

The only parties that were promising a second public referendum to stop Brexit - the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party - were decimated in this election. That seems to suggest that the majority of the public does not support halting Brexit.

Corbyn's weak and vague position on Brexit was much-criticised, but it seems to have payed off. He picked up a large amount of the former UK Independence Party vote. 

It had been expected that as UKIP collapsed in this election, the votes would go to the Tories. But many of these UKIP voters in 2015 were working class former Labour voters. With Corbyn promising to honour the referendum result, they decided to return to Labour in this election. At the same time, Labour picked up a large number of educated voters in London, many of whom usually vote Conservative, who voted remain last year and wanted to punish May.

So how would Corbyn do Brexit differently if he becomes prime minister? For the moment the question appears moot, because even a potential 'progressive alliance' of Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and the SNP would not have enough seats to form a government. The only way Corbyn might become prime minister is if another election has to be called, which remains a distinct possibility.

Everyone's a loser

Nobody won this election. The voters have spoken, but what they said is entirely unclear. They certainly didn't reject Brexit, but they also didn't support the government that is pushing for it. May said during the campaign that this was an election on Brexit, and implied that if she lost, Brexit would not happen. Despite her warnings, the public did not give her a mandate. Does this mean they don't want Brexit? Nobody knows.
The result has not only made May's political position unclear. It has also made the UK's position on Brexit unclear. For these two reasons, it may be that the only option is to call a new election in two months' time.

May's only option to stay in power is to ally with the DUP, which is politically unpalatable. Aside from the fact that the party has extreme ultra-right views on abortion and homosexuality, it will also undoubtedly ask for concessions on the Northern Ireland issue which could reignite violence in the kingdom. 

Toxic Trump

And so, in this year of many European elections, we may be getting yet another one. Although much is opaque at the moment about what yesterday's UK election means, one thing is clear - we have seen yet again very visible signs of the 'Trump effect' on the European electorate.

Like Marine Le Pen in France, May appears to have been hurt by her close association with the US president. Her humiliating state visit earlier this year, which resembled that of a supplicant leader of a vassal state, did not look pretty. 

As Trump's administration has been mired in incompetence and scandal, the images have not aged well. Meanwhile, Corbyn's brutal criticisms of Trump and his lambasting of May for her close association with him seem to have been effective, just as they were for Emmanuel Macron in France.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be watching these developments closely. She is certainly no Trump ally. But as I wrote in Berlin Policy Journal last week, her position as leader of a country that is militarily dependent on the US means she is limited in how much she can criticise the American president. Her opponent, Martin Schulz, will be much freer to cast himself as the 'anti-Trump'. 

Merkel's conserative CDU party is feeling pretty confident right now about her re-election, but yesterday's UK result will certainly have spooked them. They do not want to see a similar leftist surge emerge in the German election on 27 September.

Few things are clear about this election, but one thing's for sure - in Europe, Donald Trump is a vote loser. Casting yourself as his enemy is a vote winner. What this means for Brexit, which he championed, is still unclear.

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