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Two Views From Brussels: How U.K. Election Changes Brexit Debate

British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street in London on June 9.
British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street in London on June 9.

Snap elections in the United Kingdom have cost the Conservative government its majority and raised more questions than answers among Britain's international counterparts.

Whither Brexit negotiations? Is the so-called hard Brexit that British Prime Minister Theresa May championed now a less likely option? And how should other EU members interpret the outcome?

RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak spoke with two close observers of the European scene for their views on the topic. Steven Blockmans is a senior research fellow and head of the EU Foreign Policy Unit at the Center For European Policy Studies (CEPS). Richard Youngs is a senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Carnegie Europe.

RFE/RL: Is hard Brexit really dead now, with the uncertain result of the U.K. election?

Richard Youngs: I think it is too early to say that definitively. I think the standard, the most common interpretation now, is that the result probably makes it more necessary for the [British] government to take into consideration a wider range of views that would include a rather more cooperative set of negotiating aims.

But there are other people who at the moment are reaching the opposite conclusion; namely, that the prime minister, if she is able to stay in power, will actually have far narrower room for maneuver vis-a-vis the hard Brexiteers in her own Parliament and it will make it more difficult for her to make concessions in the negotiations in Brussels. So I think at the moment it is too early to say exactly which way this very uncertain and difficult result will push the negotiations.

Steven Blockmans: That really depends on the line that the future British government may take, either with a minority government or a coalition government. (Editor's note: Soon after these interviews on June 9, May was given approval by the queen to form a minority government.)

It is less likely that hard Brexit will materialize because of the concession that will have to be made in the upcoming consultations and negotiations on the formation of a new British government. But we should not forget that Labour itself during the campaign has also been advocating on the harder side of Brexit and may support that line even if its leaders may not support Theresa May as the future head of government.

RFE/RL: Can the Brexit negotiations really start on June 19 as envisaged?

Blockmans: That depends again on the consultations and the time needed to form a British government. Given the election outcome and going by European continental standards, which are well accustomed to coalition talks [and] even with formations of minority governments which need to be condoned, if you will, by another party propping it up from other seats in parliament, it may take longer -- and, indeed, Michel Barnier [the EU's chief negotiator in Brexit talks] has already come out stating that -- not his words, though -- but he is not hung up on the date of June 19, when Brexit negotiations were supposed to start. Indeed, if there is no government, there is no negotiating partner to start these talks with anyway, so it is only realistic to expect that that date of June 19 is not carved in stone and could be delayed.

Youngs: Well, there are already people saying in the U.K. that the most logical thing would be for there to be some kind of pause or timeout. But whether that is legally possible, I think, is highly doubtful. The result is likely to be that the effective start of the talks, at least the high political level, will now have to be delayed -- [and] that will reduce time available for the two sides to actually conclude all the necessary elements of the deal. So what was already a very, very onerous task, I think, has just become much, much more difficult. And I think that is likely to be to the U.K.'s disadvantage.

RFE/RL: How do you think the EU interprets the election result, and will it strengthen Brussels' hand in the talks?

Youngs: The logical interpretation is that it gives rather power and negotiating strength to the European side -- at least assuming that there are no big shocks in the German elections [in September]. Once that election is out of the way and talks were planned to start in earnest, one would think it tilts the negotiation power to the EU side.

Having said that, if the political situation in the U.K. becomes so unstable that we get a situation where the risk of there being no deal agreed at all becomes a real possibility, that is far more damaging for the U.K. side than it appears to [be for] the EU side. But European states would not want that eventuality either. The result might be that there are new, more acute dangers ahead for both sides, in fact.

Blockmans: I think European citizens and the leaders of the EU-27 [all members but the U.K.] as well as the EU institutions look with a certain dismay at what has been happening with the general elections... [and] with the gamble [by] Theresa May, the second Conservative prime minister to take a gamble and lose and weaken its own hand in its stance towards the European Union. That in itself is astounding, of course. But it does not translate into glee on the side of continental Europeans for the simple fact that they realize full well that a weaker and wobblier U.K. government will be less able to translate its compromise solutions made in negotiations with the European Commission into political backing at home.

So the sustainability of the outcome of the negotiations may be at further risk, and that is not in the EU's interest. The EU interest collectively was to control the damage done by what is essentially a lose-lose situation triggered by the Brexit referendum in the first place.

RFE/RL: How do you think the EU sees the electoral collapse of support for the Euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party (UKIP)?

Blockmans: I think there is a wide acknowledgement in fact that the hard line that Theresa May has followed has usurped some of the political support that has gone away from UKIP, so there was a tendency to create that hard Tory line towards Brexit talks as the line that UKIP used to support.

Youngs: I think actually it is almost paradoxically what we thought would be the case in 2017 -- a new surge in populist ideas that so many people have been talking about across Europe. In the end, it looks to be the year where we see a fairly strong push back against populist parties. So this is another part of the trend we saw starting with [anti-immigration Party For Freedom leader Geert] Wilders failing to win in the Netherlands, the Front Nationale failing to win in France, and now the decimation of UKIP in the U.K.

However, I think one cautionary word that we need to bear in mind is that the struggling fate of these populist parties doesn't mean that the kinds of issues they have been putting on the agenda in recent years have actually been sufficiently resolved.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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