UK Likely to Backtrack on ‘Hard Brexit’ Following Election Gamble

Conservatives win election but fall short of majority, increasing chances of a softer deal
June 14, 2017 Updated: June 15, 2017

BIRMINGHAM, England—Brexit could be watered down, or get very messy, following the shock election result that stripped Britain’s ruling Conservative Party of their parliamentary majority.

Prime Minister Theresa May called the election ostensibly to strengthen her negotiating hand in talks on the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, hoping to capitalize on her party’s high popularity in the polls.

Her gamble backfired.

May lost her slim majority in the lawmaking chambers and is now scratching together an informal coalition with 10 members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland.

Even with the backing of the DUP, however, many political analysts believe May can no longer push for a “hard Brexit.”

Leaving the EU isn’t simply a matter of returning the membership card.

Theresa May lost her slim majority in the lawmaking chambers and is now scratching together an informal coalition with 10 members of Northern Ireland’s DUP party.

The laws, administrations, and economies of EU member states have been enmeshed for decades. A sudden exit would not be in the interests of either the U.K. or the EU, so the treaty mandates a two-year negotiating period to tie up loose ends, such as finances and expat arrangements, and to hash out a new relationship.

A halfway house between full membership and full exit, with compromises on issues such as immigration, market access, and the influence of EU court, is known as a “soft Brexit.”

Leaving with no deal, with all ties severed and an automatic adoption of World Trade Organization rules, would be a hard Brexit. May had refused to rule out leaving the EU with no deal.

“No deal is better than a bad deal,” she said during the election campaign, and before.

However, it is lawmakers in Parliament who will decide whether to accept or reject the deal with Brussels, not the prime minister. Getting her own party to toe the line may be difficult.

A coalition with the DUP would give the Conservative Party a leg up to the majority threshold, enabling them to pass some legislation, but many commentators believe it is highly unlikely the DUP will support that vital “no deal” vote.

The DUP won its support in Northern Ireland on a manifesto of having no “hard border,” a so-called frictionless border, with neighboring Ireland. Leaving the EU with no deal would automatically create such a hard border.

However, a hard Brexit could also happen if the EU and the U.K. fail to reach an agreement to put to Parliament at the end of negotiations—something often called “crashing out of the EU” or a “chaotic Brexit.”

Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London and director of the think tank U.K. in a Changing Europe, said the election result has paradoxically heightened both the chances of a soft Brexit and of a chaotic Brexit.  

He doesn’t agree that May’s political hobbling in Parliament weakens her negotiating hand with the EU.

However, Menon points out that leaving the EU isn’t a simple matter of rubber-stamping the deal thrashed out with the EU.

A protester outside the Houses of Parliament in London on March 13, 2017. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
A protester outside the Houses of Parliament in London on March 13, 2017.

Pulling out of the EU will leave various legal holes that will require passing new legislation in the U.K.—not an easy task with a wafer-thin majority.

“That legislation is going to deal with some really sensitive issues, over which there is a great deal of political division,” Menon said.

For example, the U.K. will need new immigration legislation in place, Menon said, from the day it leaves the EU.

“The legislation targeted specifically at Europeans is going to bring out that whole fight over freedom of movement and the rights of EU nationals,” he said.

The Labour Party manifesto also promised to carry through on Brexit, but fell short of promising a hard Brexit.

Politicians of all parties have suggested that another election is likely to be held within the next year. However, the constitutional rules on calling elections, together with the current parliamentary arithmetic, make this unlikely, according to Meg Russell, head of the Constitution unit at University College London.

With political turmoil, a weakened prime minister, and the clock ticking on the negotiations, senior figures from the main parties have already called for a cross-party group to be formed to handle Brexit.

The EU chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told the Financial Times, “My preoccupation is that time is passing. It is passing quicker than anyone believes because the subjects we have to deal with are extraordinarily complex.”

Although the EU treaty specifies the negotiations period can be extended with agreement from all member states, Barnier said that the March 2019 exit date should not be pushed back.

After a meeting with May on June 13, French President Emmanuel Macron said Britain can change its mind on Brexit any time during negotiations. He said he respected the decision, but “the door remains open”—the exact message given by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble a few hours earlier.

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