The implications of the election result on the Brexit negotiations
Theresa May called the snap election to not only extend the Conservative Party’s majority in the Commons, but also to protect her position as prime minister with authority over her party in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. However, her claim that an even greater Tory majority will “strengthen [her] hand” in the negotiations should be ignored. In reality the British government has very little leverage on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and the devastating result of the election won’t change this. It is time for May to change her strategy and stop viewing the negotiations as a battle between the UK and the EU.
Theresa May should reconsider her Brexit negotiation strategy. ((Photo: Jack Hill - WPA Pool /Getty Images))
Theresa’s big gamble
When Theresa May called the snap election two months ago she expected a landslide win for the Conservative Party. Pollsters expected her party to extend the party’s 17 seat majority in the House of Commons by at least 60 seats (some even foresaw a 120 seat majority). This, the prime minister argued, would provide her with a “strengthened hand” in the Brexit negotiations. She presumably also realised that this would be the last chance to win a majority in parliament before the actual Brexit negotiations started and her weak position therein would become more apparent. So far her position was that the UK has the upper hand in the negotiations and that her government could dictate the terms of the divorce. But a strategy of cherrypicking and blaming everything on the European Union cannot hold up for too long and would diminish her chances of winning a majority in parliament in the future. May and her close circle of advisers (apparently the snap elections came as surprise to most cabinet members) gambled that portraying the Brexit negotiations as a battle and May as the Iron Lady would convince enough voters for a comfortable Tory victory.
She held a highly personalised campaign centred almost completely on her providing a “strong and stable leadership in the national interest”. Something, she claims, Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to do. Tories warned that a vote for Labour would result in a “coalition of chaos” that would significantly weaken the UK’s position. She uttered these platitudes so many times (“Maybot”) that voters got fed up with her slogans already at the start of the campaign. Several U-turns on policies (including calling the snap election) without admitting them further weakened her reputation as a stable politician. The prime minister also refused to take part in a debate with other party leaders or any direct confrontation with voters. She wasn’t even able to turn the recent terrorist attacks into political capital, a topic traditionally associated with a shift to the right. But having been the home secretary for six years before becoming prime minister, she was directly responsible for cutting over 20,000 police officers.
Of course Labour’s success isn’t merely the result of May’s catastrophic campaigning. As an outsider in his own party, Corbyn managed to mobilise young voters and point out the wrongdoings of austerity policies of the previous Tory and New Labour governments. What was supposed to result in a landslide victory for May ended up in a hung parliament and calls for the prime minister to step down. She was forced to reshuffle the cabinet (with some of her nemeses back) and to remove her top two advisers.
But what does this mean for the upcoming Brexit negotiations that are supposed to start next week? Despite May’s claim when she announced the snap election that this will be an election on Brexit, the topic has been hardly covered by the two big parties. May continued her delusional position of “no deal is better than a bad deal” and Corbyn shifted the debate away from the topic. Further questions have arisen from the simple fact that the Tories will have to form some sort of coalition (either a formal coalition or a more likely confidence and supply deal) with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - a party whose position on Brexit is, to put it mildly, rather naive.
What is DUP’s position on Brexit?
The DUP is one of the UK’s most eurosceptic parties; it was opposed to the UK initially joining the EU and supported the Leave campaign during the referendum. Of course the majority of Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU. The protestant unionist party is also problematic for many outside of Northern Ireland, as it is extremely socially conservative; it is anti-abortion, against same-sex marriage and several of its senior members are creationists - something many centrist Tories will find hard to reconcile with. Not to mention the DUP’s links with Ulster loyalist terrorist groups during the Troubles and its opposition to the Good Friday Agreement. However, the coalition deal between the parties will probably only cover British economic issues.
According to the party’s election manifesto, it essentially advocates a so-called soft Brexit, where Britain remains in the custom union, establishes a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU and remains in the common travel area, enabling seamless travel between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. In other words, the party is eager to minimise the economic and political impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, while ensuring unity with the rest of the UK. Despite opposition to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, it is not in the DUP’s interest to jeopardise the peace process - something that has been largely ignored in Westminster. The economic consequences of a hard border on the island would simply be too severe. Further, agriculture being an important part of the economy, the party wants to ensure the “ability to opt-in to EU funds where proven to be cost-effective and add value”, but this demand could also be compensated by financial handouts from Westminster.
The DUP’s demands would essentially give Northern Ireland a special status in post-Brexit Britain, where all the benefits of EU membership are retained without contributing properly to the EU budget, accepting EU law and free movement of all EU citizens (i.e. extreme cherrypicking) - a position that will be unacceptable to the EU. To achieve these demands (and prevent conflict from reigniting) Northern Ireland would have to become a special zone remaining within the EU single market (or at least customs union) and accepting all that comes with it, while the rest of the UK would be outside; coming even closer to a united Ireland - a position that directly contradicts unionist ideology.
DUP’s Brexit position not relevant in negotiations
While it might appear that a party that provides the ruling Tories with the majority in parliament would be important during the upcoming Brexit negotiations, their role shouldn’t be overstated. May called this election to “strengthen her hand” in the negotiations by becoming more independent from hardline Brexiteers, as she wouldn’t have to rely on their vote in parliament. This would have allowed her to make important concessions to the EU and remain in the single market, while saving face at home, i.e. a soft Brexit. Many commentators have argued that the tiny Conservative/DUP majority of 2 seats will make a harder Brexit more likely, as the government would have to make concessions to hardline Brexiteers.
However, they seem to ignore the simple fact that a so-called hard Brexit could not possibly happen when Britain formally leaves the EU in less than two years. No prime minister would risk the economic and political consequences of leaving the EU with no deal. May’s letter triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty made it clear that she is not interested in a membership in either the customs union nor the single market. To achieve this Britain would have to buy more time through a transitional deal where the country would be technically already outside of the EU but in reality accept all EU law, freedom of movement of labour, pay into the EU budget and remain in the single market (possibly without being represented in the EU bodies). It would be impossible for British civil servants (who haven’t been in charge of trade agreements for quite some time) to both negotiate the divorce agreement and a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU as well as with at least all the other countries the EU currently has free trade agreements with. Already finding a solution that suits all of the UK, especially Northern Ireland, will be extremely time consuming. Therefore, any talk of a hard Brexit should be understood as a long-term vision that can only be followed by a transitional period.
May’s “no deal is better than a bad deal” talk is targeted solely at a domestic audience to buy her goodwill before the actual negotiations begin. Some experts have argued, including several EU diplomats after meetings with their UK counterparts, that May is delusional and driven by a conviction of restoring Empire. But historical ignorant rhetoric must be seen as May’s strategy of appealing to nationalism and portraying Brexit as a battle between a seeming “Global Britain” and a decaying Europe, mainly with the intent of keeping the right-wing press happy. In reality most British interests and EU interests overlap, including free movement of people, and leaving the EU goes completely against Britain’s strategic interests.
May has to rethink her strategy
This election should urge May to rethink her strategy and accept that Brexit negotiations cannot be seen as a battle where only one party can win. Her entire Brexit stance has helped create completely unrealistic expectations that can never be met. While it is easy to put all the blame on the EU at the moment and to portray it as the “enemy of the British people”, it will make it increasingly hard for her to sell a transitional deal to the British public in less than two years. Instead, her strategy will almost certainly backfire; a civil war in the Conservative party seems inevitable, including a leadership contest and possibly even new elections. The only positive aspect of a Tory/DUP coalition or deal would be that May cannot continue her “no deal is better than a bad deal” talk, as that would be an obvious disaster for Northern Ireland. This could also potentially be used as a pretext to establish a new approach in the negotiations, i.e. less aggressive, more transparent and especially more realistic and honest. And with the added side effect of reuniting Remainers and Leavers in her own party. Even though her weakened authority might make this very difficult.