Brexit after the election

May should practise a little humility

The UK election result – an enhanced majority for the Conservative party, but a somewhat tarnished prime minister – may increase the chances of a ‘softer’ British withdrawal from the European Union.

Theresa May’s failure to weigh up correctly the risks and rewards of an early election, and to consult properly with party allies over the key social aspects of the Conservative election manifesto, seems likely to strengthen the hand of parliament against the government.

The outgoing legislature displayed a strong majority for a comparatively soft Brexit, in particular over keeping Britain in the single market. Even if the position of new members of the House of Commons is not fully known, the same is likely to be true for the incoming parliament.

Knowing the UK-EU divorce results must be put before members of parliament, the government may trim its hard position on the single market and the linkage to immigration. That would require some difficult compromises on accommodating EU conditions on freedom of movement and on UK payments into the Brussels budget.

Scotland’s position will be crucial. The Scottish Nationalist party and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have repeatedly stated they wish to stay in the single market. If this option starts to look more realistic, English-Scottish relations may improve and calls for a second referendum on Scottish independence could wane. This would be helpful for the stability of the UK and for the chances of success for the EU talks.

May and the UK government are responsible for using these openings to unlock Brexit negotiations. The opportunity may not remain open for long. Once negotiations start in earnest, after the French parliamentary elections this month, those openings will close.

One must hope that, rather than repeating that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, May will detect options for a compromise. The optimal solution would be neither good nor bad for any particular faction, but would reflect a reasonable sharing of the costs embedded in an undertaking many British people did not actually want.

In a Commentary on 26 April I wrote, ‘Theresa May’s call for a UK general election is a perilous combination of low risk and high stakes’ which involved ‘reckless gambling with the nation’s future.’ Some of those risks became clearer during the six week campaign.

To trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and less than three weeks later call a general election always looked to me like ill-conceived timing. The rest of the EU saw it as a deliberate snub, showing how Britain subordinated Brexit negotiations to domestic politics. There is still a chance for May to make amends. When she goes next to Brussels, the rest of the EU will be in the ascendancy. She may need to practise a little humility.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and Singapore Management University, and a former State Secretary at the Danish Foreign Ministry.

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