In the month following the UK’s trigger of Article 50, the EU moved swiftly to adopt its negotiating stance, which, as expected, concedes little to Westminster’s vision of the talks and the UK’s bright Brexit future. Brussels is however again waiting on London, where Theresa May has called a snap general election for 8 June and launched her campaign with a solid round of Brussels-bashing. Meanwhile, all await with baited breath the outcome of this weekend’s election in France, where the future of the Union hangs in the balance.
The view from London
Another Conservative bet
On 18 April Prime Minister May surprised most observers on both sides of the Channel by calling a snap election. She claimed to be convinced by the need to strengthen her slender parliamentary majority in order to deliver Brexit and all the difficult decisions that will involve. Specifically, to pull the carpet from under the feet of her opponents in the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Parties who were lining up to force the Government into concessions. There can be no doubt that the opportunity to capitalise on the dire state of the Labour Party in the polls under Jeremy Corbyn must have played its part in her decision, but it does seem likely that there is more weighing on her decision than the need to silence her critics on the other side of the House.
A lesson she perhaps learnt from her predecessor, David Cameron, was the importance of dealing promptly with Eurosceptics within her own party. A general election delivering a sizeable Conservative parliamentary majority would effectively take the wind out of their sails and enable her to dictate her own agenda. And finally, perhaps with one eye on a second term, a 2017 general election has the advantage of ensuring the subsequent general election in 2022 falls well after the Brexit negotiation deadline of March 2019. Had May chosen not to call a general election in 2017 the country would next be going to the polls in 2020, which ties the fate of the Conservative party very much to the highly unpredictable outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
Relying on the pollsters
The polls are giving May’s Conservatives a 20 point lead in the vote. Given the pollsters performed so poorly in predicting the outcome of the 2015 general election, there is an argument that we should take their predictions with a healthy dose of scepticism this time around. Especially given the double dose of uncertainty created by the effect of Corbyn’s leadership on the fate of the Labour party, and the potential for this election to become a vote about Brexit.
Whether or not they get it right this time around, the numbers will certainly shape the campaign in the weeks ahead. May’s central campaign theme of ‘strong and stable leadership’ of her Government, in contrast to a ‘coalition of chaos’ under Corbyn is only effective if the public takes seriously the threat of Labour victory. Counterintuitively, May could really struggle to get traction with her message should the polls predict dire performance by Labour. On the other side of the fence, a divided Labour party is uniting under the banner of preventing a Conservative party ‘coronation’, a theme which would no longer strike a chord should the polls predict a narrowing of the Tory lead.
With the Liberal Democrats expected to pick off some Tory seats in pro-remain districts and almost half of Labour voters saying they are more likely to back the party because they don’t think Jeremy Corbyn will become prime minister, it is likely the strategists in each party will be watching their performance in the polls with mixed emotions.
Having lectured Sturgeon that “now is not the time” for holding a second referendum on independence, May’s subsequent decision to call a general election in the middle of Brexit negotiations should in theory be a very risky move in strongly pro-Remain Scotland. But May’s electoral appeal seems to be stretching well beyond traditional (English) Tory heartlands, with a recent poll predicting support for the Tories could increase their share of the Scottish vote from 15% and 1 MP in the 2015 general election, to 28% and 8 MPs in 2017. Correspondingly the SNP star could finally be on the wane with seat numbers predicted to fall from 56 to 47, including the possible loss of their deputy leader, Angus Robertson. Such a result, if translated at the polls on 8 June would certainly weaken Sturgeon’s case for independence, but May will nevertheless be wary of underestimating this shrewd political operator.
…for the Brexit that May come
The reports of the now infamous May-Juncker dinner of 26 April have been seen as a fascinating ‘taster’ of the negotiations to come and underlined elements of the PM’s personality that will be crucial in Brexit talks. The first is her stubbornness, or as she calls it being a ‘bloody difficult woman’ which draws obvious parallels to her female predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, and plays well to the electorate. The second is her desire to keep control of events and to conduct conversations behind the scenes – her willingness to keep the press in the dark as she gets on with ‘the business of government’ has been a feature of her leadership. Her approach – both attempting to maintain tight control and keeping the press at arms’ length – will surely be tested to breaking point during the Brexit process, and how she responds to this new way of working will be pivotal.
A key tactic of her campaign was on display on 10 May when the PM delivered a combative speech claiming that leaks out of Brussels to media about the “disaster dinner” were “deliberately timed to affect the result” of the UK election – although Downing Street is well aware that EU leaders prefer May’s re-election to the Labour alternative.
“The European commission’s negotiating stance has hardened,” she added. “Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials. […T]he last few days have shown that whatever our wishes, and however reasonable the positions of the Europe’s other leaders, there are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed, who do not want Britain to prosper.”
The view from Brussels
The EU27 Brexit Summit on 29 April approved in a matter of minutes the guidelines for Brexit negotiations, in a show EU leaders felt demonstrated clarity of purpose and unity “not only on the substance, but also on the method of conducting the Brexit talks”. Reiterated longstanding positions on the key elements of the Brexit talks, the guidelines confirmed that negotiations will be phased, tackling first the divorce bill, EU citizens’ rights, and the Ireland border deal.
Shortly after, EU Ambassadors and the College of Commissioners discussed the Union’s guidelines and the Commission presented its recommendation to open withdrawal negotiations, including negotiating directives that should be signed-off by EU governments in the General Affairs Council on 22 May. As summarised by Michel Barnier, these include a heavy exit bill in Euros, and provisions to maintain free movement of people and ECJ jurisdiction on disputes over the Brexit agreement and EU law affected by it.
…but getting hot under the collar
While officially the EU’s position has not shifted, there are signs of growing impatience in Brussels and among EU leaders with London’s tactics. Following his dinner with May when the British PM insisted that EU citizens in the UK would be treated in the future like any other foreign national, that trade talks needed to start before the issue of Britain’s divorce bill was settled, that technically the UK owed nothing at all to the EU and that that monthly four-days confidential negotiations would suffice to make a success of Brexit, President Juncker reportedly gave up hope and concluded May was “deluded” and “living in a another galaxy”. “I’m leaving Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before” Juncker told his host. German Chancellor Merkel responded by publicly warning the Brits that “illusions” were “a waste of time”.
May’s accusation that the EU was meddling in the domestic electoral process – reminiscent of claims until now reserved for the Kremlin – left many speechless. The UK government’s block of EU (post-Brexit) budget talks review due to “purdah” ahead of the elections annoyed all.
What a reprisal from Brussels could look like was hinted at in suggestions that the UK could be phased out from EU’s trade talks and that London’s Euro clearance may be stripped even before withdrawal.
The Commission has also said that the UK would have to pay the full costs of moving the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority out of London (with a decision as to where expected in October), and that the Brexit bill will be denominated in Euros. Regarding territoriality, the EU’s guidelines confirm that any future deal cannot apply to Gibraltar without Spain’s consent. EU leaders also promised to welcome Northern Ireland into the EU if a future referendum were to unite it with the Republic of Ireland. While more complicated, dozens of European politicians now support Scotland’s independence and EU membership.
Calm before the storm
Calls for calm and patience abound however. For the EU, the priority remains to minimise the disruption of Brexit, and to concentrate on the future of the block. According to his chief of staff, Juncker is unlikely to spend more than 30 minutes a week on Brexit, with the governing principle being to handle Brexit “in a professional and pragmatic way”.
Following a trilateral summit on 21 April, the leaders of Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands took the lead in reiterating the importance for all of striking the best possible deal: “If the prime minister [Theresa May] says that what she wants for Britain is as close a relationship with the European Union as possible, we support that, and the less implications there are for tariffs, and obstructions and administrative bureaucracy the better for everyone,” said Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny following the meeting.
Things can, of course, change – and fast. The French elections this Sunday could yet blow the whole thing wide open.
Written in collaboration with Newington