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Britain’s General Elections and Brexit: First Salvoes or Just Firing Blanks?

Anand Menon
Commentary, 5 May 2017
European Union, UK, International Institutions, Europe
Leaks of the discussion at a dinner between Prime Minister Theresa May and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Junker have provided London with an early warning of the challenges which lie ahead after the 8 June election.

Smoke and mirrors. That’s what the Brexit debate is currently about. Who said what to whom over dinner? How much will they charge us? What do the Europeans think Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis is for?

Brexit matters enormously. For this reason if for no other, every nod, every wink, every whisper, every leak is pored over in excruciating detail. What, then, should we make of the recent kerfuffle resulting from Prime Minister Theresa May’s dinner with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Junker, and how might the 8 June general election affect the Brexit process?

To deal with the dinner first. Obviously, leaks must be treated with caution. Not that, in the current fevered atmosphere of post-referendum Britain, this will prevent leave and remain supporters eagerly seizing on anything that smacks of confirmation of their biases.

Yet even if the account of the meal published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung is wholly accurate, a fundamental disagreement between Junker and May is not necessarily as significant as it may sound.

Formal negotiations are yet to start, and it will not be Junker carrying them out. Moreover, one would expect posturing and positioning to be the order of the day, particularly when, as May knows all too well, spats such as this will probably increase her chances of securing a significantly improved majority in June.

Clearly, there are serious issues to be resolved. How the process will work is one. Brussels has a preference for an ongoing set of technical talks, rather than the heads of state and government driven model that the prime minister seems to favour.

Equally, the dinner – and more particularly the leaking of what transpired – has served to provide a useful lesson to the British side. The negotiations will not, indeed cannot, unfold in secret.

Even if both sides were to commit to trying, not all – indeed arguably none – of the 27 are as centralised or secrecy obsessed as is the British government. And that’s without mentioning the European Parliament.

And finally, of course, all the details about possible British payments, the sequencing of talks on the divorce and on Article 50 and the like still remain to be thrashed out. However, this was always the case and, for all the noises off, that will continue to be the case until the two sides sit down and start to negotiate.

So, it may be premature for gleeful remainers to point to the reports and declare ‘we warned you’. But it is not only they who need to get a grip. Leavers, too, must reconnect with reality.

For one thing, the incident round the Downing Street table has served to puncture the myth that ‘they need us more than we need them’. Little wonder that the rhetoric has shifted to focus on the spiteful Junker.  

Equally, it is simply not the case that, when the prime minister increases her majority at the general election, this will shift the balance of power decisively towards us. The election will not enhance Britain’s negotiating strength in Brussels. Indeed, quite the opposite.

As American political scientist Robert Putnam has argued, it is domestic weakness that translates most effectively into enhanced bargaining strength in the international arena. In other words, pointing to domestic constraints is more effective than boasting of domestic freedom of manoeuvre.

At the very most – and this is a function of timing rather than the size of any Conservative majority – the election increases the chance of some kind of transitional deal being agreed.

The prime minister needs Britain to have left the EU by the time she goes to the polls again. A promise to make this happen is central to her campaign in this election.

The fact that the next election will not be until 2022 – as opposed to 2020 under the old timetable – gives her some breathing space.

And this may provide an opportunity. If negotiations on a trade deal are underway (a big ‘if’, as it implies that the outlines of the divorce deal have been agreed) the three-year window between the end of the Article 50 process and the next British poll could serve as an ‘implementation phase’.

This could lessen any economic shock caused by leaving the single market and the customs union, allowing new structures and procedures to be put in place, and businesses to begin to adapt.

The like of Brexit has never happened before. However, everyone knows its consequences will be profound. And so, everything will be over interpreted, everything will be analysed to death. Yet, as the events of the last week show, it is important not to rush to conclusions.

Professor Anand Menon heads the UK in a Changing Europe initiative at King’s College London.

Prime Minister Theresa May welcomes European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at 10 Downing Street. Courtesy of Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment.

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