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Brexit: the view from Brussels

The British media is extremely inward-looking and although showing concern for the upcoming Brexit negotiations, pays little regard to the effect they will have on the rest of Europe.  

Yes, British politics has been turned upside-down by the outcome of Theresa May’s ill-fated election. But on Brexit, Mrs May’s stated reason for holding a vote, little has changed for Brussels and the 27 other governments of the European Union. The EU’s priority is to conduct the talks in as orderly a fashion as possible, and not to allow any deal to weaken its own legal order (hence the constant warnings against British “cherry-picking”).

As British politics has tumbled through its various stages of turbulence, the European side has steadily locked down its stance, assembling negotiating teams, agreeing on common positions and issuing position papers. Senior EU officials were comfortable with Mrs May’s snap election because they thought a larger Conservative majority would make for a more stable negotiating partner in what are clearly going to be difficult talks.

So there are no champagne corks popping in Brussels this week. Instead, officials have been left drumming their fingers and waiting for the chaos in Britain to resolve itself. Michel Barnier, the French politician who will lead the Brexit talks on behalf of the EU, tweeted: “Brexit negotiations should start when UK is ready; timetable and EU positions are clear. Let’s put our minds together on striking a deal.” Most pronouncements from European politicians were bland statements of fact about the two-year Brexit process, which began when Mrs May triggered Article 50 of the EU treaty in March.

Assuming that Mrs May’s hasty governing arrangement with the Democratic Unionists holds, Brexit negotiations should begin on or soon after June 19th, as previously scheduled. Will the election outcome make any difference to the negotiations? Mrs May, who had previously ruled out elections, justified her U-turn with the argument that a stronger parliamentary majority would strengthen her hand in the Brexit talks. By her own logic, she will now enter the negotiating chamber weaker than ever.

In fact Mrs May’s argument was bogus; the EU’s stance was never contingent on the number of conservative MPs in the House of Commons. Its positions are clearly laid down in Mr Barnier’s negotiating mandate, approved by the 27 governments some weeks ago. In the first phase of the talks, it will focus on guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in Britain, clarifying the status of the Irish border, and squeezing a large financial settlement from Britain that reduces the hole in the EU’s budget.

But might the election, as some have argued, open the door for a “soft” Brexit once the two sides proceed to discussing a trade deal, later this year? As this newspaper argues, it is difficult for Mrs May to claim a mandate for her hard version of Brexit – leaving the single market and customs union – after her dismal electoral performance. Yet the opposition Labour Party has also committed to ending freedom of movement for EU nationals, which implies quitting the single market too. It is not easy to imagine what government, after this election or another, might be ready to jettison those pledges.

A more worrying possibility is that political instability in Britain makes it harder to strike any sort of deal at all. Mrs May’s threat that she preferred no deal with the EU to a bad one may not survive her electoral humiliation. However, it now appears that May might consider discussions of a cross-party nature on Brexit. This might help the conservatives when the talks go up in smoke and they can pass the buck to an extent, but will remain ‘a dead woman walking’.

However, an unstable government or a restive parliament may limit the space that she, or her successor, has for compromise. Before the election EU officials warned repeatedly that unreasonable expectations on the British side were shortening the odds of a disorderly Brexit. The spectacle now unfolding across the English Channel will not have reassured them.


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