It's up to the EU to ensure May's 'softer Brexit' ploy pays off

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

“It’s about getting the best possible deal” on Brexit – that is British Prime Minister Theresa May’s new mantra to explain the surprise general election she has called for 8 June. It is intended to justify her volte face after having stoutly refused to consider fresh elections in the wake of last year’s Brexit referendum, but it also contains a coded message about her change of heart on Brexit itself.

May’s mantra means that she is abandoning her government’s stance that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and will instead be open to the sort of arrangements with the EU that hardliners in her Conservative Party have been condemning as a ‘soft Brexit’.

A number of calculations have led to this change of heart in a politician who is renowned for inflexibility once her mind is made up. On economic as well as political grounds, May has decided that discretion is indeed the better part of valour. The antagonism to the European Union of her Brexiteer ministers will, once the election is out of the way, shift to a far more constructive, and perhaps even conciliatory, approach.

May’s political calculation is that the election’s likely result will give her the authority and power to manage the Brexit negotiations with minimal damage to Britain

Theresa May’s bombshell announcement coincided with the International Monetary Fund’s release of its latest analysis of the UK economy. It underlined the widespread consensus among experts that leaving the EU will in the longer term deal a body blow to British living standards, although it sugared the pill by revising its forecast for this year’s GDP growth upwards to an EU-beating two per cent.

But it’s not the short term that interests Treasury officials in London. Their boss, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, has been quietly warning his cabinet colleagues that a ‘hard Brexit’ would irreversibly damage the British economy. Like May herself, Hammond was on the Remain side of the referendum debate, and both now find themselves charged with extricating the UK from the EU with the least possible disruption.

May’s political calculation is that the election’s likely result will give her the authority and power to manage the Brexit negotiations with minimal damage to Britain. Pollsters generally agree that with the Labour opposition at a historically low ebb, and thanks to the jingoistic fervour of many pro-Brexit voters, the Conservative government’s presently slender majority in the House of Commons will receive a huge boost.

Nobody can yet say how much larger the Tory majority will turn out to be, but it’s certain that May will no longer be beholden to the hardline Brexiteers in her party. She will be able to contemplate anew the UK’s position on issues ranging from single market membership to continuing (if reduced) EU budget contributions, and from free movement of people to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

May’s unexpected election decision offers a chance of a much more amiable new relationship

Such ideas have been anathema to the many rank-and-file Brexiteers in her party – and, it seems, to the trio of ministers tasked with managing the Brexit process. But with a parliamentary majority that could rise from today’s single figures to three figures, May will be able to tell hardliners they must put up or shut up.

The outlook in Britain appears fairly clear, so what about the EU itself? When the European Council’s President, Donald Tusk, reacted to the election’s announcement, he reportedly said it changed nothing from the EU’s perspective. That will in all certainty prove to be wrong. It will be up to Michel Barnier, the key negotiator on behalf the Commission, to capitalise on the UK’s less belligerent approach and ensure that the EU too can be flexible and accommodating.

In recent weeks, there has seemed a growing risk of the British government walking away from the Brexit negotiations, with talks breaking down before they even begin over the €40bn to €60bn ‘exit bill’ to be presented to the UK.

May’s unexpected election decision now offers a chance of a much more amiable new relationship, and the EU’s representatives will do well to respond warmly to this.

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