Brussels hasn’t had many reasons to rejoice in recent years, but there was jubilation over the outcome of Theresa May’s snap election. She called it with the aim of winning a nationwide mandate to negotiate a ‘hard Brexit’ from the EU, and to near-universal delight in Brussels she has been denied that in humiliating terms.
When May unexpectedly became prime minister in the wake of last June’s Brexit referendum, she enjoyed a degree of sympathy in EU circles. She was known as a somewhat humdrum Home Secretary with a fixation about reducing immigration, but in general the Brussels view was that she’d been dealt a difficult hand of cards and deserved all possible support in putting the voters’ misguided and ill-informed Brexit decision into practice. She had, after all, declared herself during the referendum campaign as being in favour of remaining in the EU.
The ensuing 11 months saw May’s own bizarre transmogrification. From Remainer, she went overnight to insisting that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and this year has become increasingly combative and strident in her pursuit of a hard Brexit. ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ became her battle cry, even though she refused to divulge her aims for a new relationship with the EU27.
Unsurprisingly, Theresa May’s stock in the capitals of Europe as well as in Brussels has fallen sharply. Instead of being seen as a capable head of government adroitly handling a thanklessly difficult problem, she is seen as a prime minister who attempts to disguise her domestic vulnerabilities by copying the ‘Iron Lady’ tactics in Europe of Margaret Thatcher. The comment by her former ministerial colleague Ken Clark that she’s ‘a bloody difficult woman’ has stuck, and not in a way that earns respect.
In the EU institutions and throughout the ‘Brussels bubble’, people have been glued to BBC radio and TV coverage of the gamble that so spectacularly backfired. Quite apart from Schadenfreude over the ornery May’s humiliation, there’s a cool-headed view that this election opens the way to a much softer Brexit.
The general consensus amongst political analysts throughout the EU has been that Britain’s leadership had perversely chosen to inflict massive economic damage on the country. Now there are hopes that, in the absence of any electoral endorsement of Brexit, the UK’s negotiators will opt to remain in the single market and accept the EU’s four freedoms of movement of goods, capital, services and workers.
Theresa May is bravely trying to put a good face on her much weakened position at the head of a minority government. But she can’t disguise the fact that her lack of a parliamentary majority forces her to rely on the notoriously unreliable Ulster Unionists of the DUP. And there’s no hiding from Brussels that her once militantly pro-Brexit government is now emasculated. British voters refused to rally to May’s cause of a hard Brexit, and that will make it impossible for her new government to tough it out in Brussels.
It is important that the EU negotiators, led by veteran French politician Michel Barnier, should abstain from triumphalism of any sort. They should keep firmly in mind the possibility that a softer and more accommodating approach to the UK’s departure could just possibly open the way to Brexit’s eventual abandonment. Just how, and when, no one can tell, but it’s essential that the EU should not crow over May’s election defeat. An amicable divorce could one day see a reconciliation.
Friends of Europe
Giles Merritt is founder and Chairman of the think tank Friends of Europe and its policy journal, Europe’s World. He was foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and is Advisory Board Member of the Scottish Centre on European Relations