A stunning election result left the world scratching its head this morning. The British electorate’s rejection of Theresa May’s attempt to build her majority both emboldens Remain and soft Brexit supporters and will create a ‘weak and wobbly’ Government that could struggle to handle tough Brexit negotiations and reinforce Britain’s place in the world.
Britain’s Brexit Ambiguity
Theresa May’s attempt to secure a stronger mandate for negotiations on Brexit collapsed in catastrophe, and with the UK and EU due to start negotiations on Brexit in just 10 days, the impact of a hung Parliament and Conservative-DUP partnership could mean that new options are on the table.
Regardless of Theresa May’s robust rhetoric this afternoon after her meeting with the Queen, it will be difficult for British and EU leaders not to treat the vote as a clear rejection of a hard Brexit. But just as important, no one on the continent can be sure if she, or anyone in the UK, has the political strength to lead a conversation about what’s next.
Theresa May has declared negotiations will begin on 19 June as scheduled, despite comments by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier that “#Brexit negotiations should start when UK is ready”. After months of preparation for a hard Brexit, can the UK start talks in 10 days with that approach, based on this result? And if it does, will it be seen as credible by the EU, or as acting in desperation under a lame duck leader?
Calls for a softer Brexit or to remain will grow louder in the coming days, even if a slow-down of the process or a reversal of Article 50 are extremely unlikely. Either would require political will and collaboration from the 27 other EU member states, whose patience with the UK has worn thin. It is unclear how Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and the highest level EU leaders will leverage their own new “strong and stable” position.
France’s Prime Minister has indicated that France is surprised by the result but that Brexit is not called into question, which may not be what the surge of Labour voters wanted to hear. Will European leaders open their arms to the UK in a bid to keep it in the single market? Or use Theresa May’s much weaker position and their own renewed strength as an opportunity to take a tougher negotiating position that reinforces the EU-27? We do not know yet…but the UK cannot expect much sympathy.
The World beyond Brexit
The all-consuming focus on Brexit caused the UK to play a quieter role on many other foreign policy priorities over the past six months. On issues like international security and terrorism, the shifting balance of power in Asia, the crisis in the Middle East between Qatar and its neighbours and numerous other issues, the election result further opens the door for other countries to lead.
That could empower the United States as well as Europe, with a great opportunity for France and Germany to strengthen their position as a counter-balance to President Trump.
The UK, under a fragile Conservative-DUP alliance and with its relationships with Washington and the trio of Brussels, Paris and Berlin under strain and scrutiny, risks drifting into a position of less global influence at a time when it needs to chart a post-Brexit position in the world.
Depictions in international media and commentary from foreign politicians of an angry, confused British electorate and a defeated, foolish Theresa May reinforce that weakness. While the election result feels like a victory for those who opposed an isolationist, populist Brexit Britain, it also creates a Britain potentially too distracted by continued internal debate to address global issues.
Unless Britain’s globalists and liberals can raise their voice, other countries will certainly fill the void.
Michael Hartt, Director & Partner, International Affairs
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January 15, 2021
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