Andrew Duff -  On Governing Europe

Running Commentary XII

The British election

There is to be a Brexit general election in the United Kingdom on Thursday 8 June. Short of a revolution, the winner will be the Conservative party, and Theresa May will continue as prime minister. In calling – and winning – the election, Theresa May will entrench Brexit. Quite fairly, she has challenged the other parties to spell out their alternative prospectus for Britain in Europe after Brexit. So far:

  • The Labour party wants to maximise ‘access’ to the single market, like the Americans and Chinese;
  • The Liberal Democrats want to ‘stay in’ the single market – presumably like the Norwegians;
  • The Scottish Nationalists want to leave the United Kingdom.

Until now, the opposition parties have said they ‘respect’ the result of the Brexit referendum even though they disagree with it. Will the election liberate pro-European Remainers from being resigned to leaving the EU? What is more likely is that Mrs May with a larger majority behind her will be able both to face down the nationalist far right and outpace disoriented Remainers by pursuing her own concept of ‘soft Brexit’. What might that be? Perhaps all will be revealed in the course of the election campaign.


The French election

The British general election should cause little or no delay to the start of the official Article 50 negotiations, which cannot really get going until there is a new French government in place. The new president is elected on 3 May, but the election of the Assemblée Nationale is not done until 18 June.

Don’t expect a soft ride for the Brits from any of the leading candidates. Emmanuel Macron will be best for Europe (by far).

Après May, le déluge

I have written quite a lot here for the European Policy Centre about Mrs May’s letter which triggered Article 50 (29 March), the draft guidelines of the European Council (kindly shared with the press by President Donald Tusk on 31 March), and the European Parliament’s resolution on the matter (5 April).

Sherpas at basecamp

High-level officials of the EU 27 have begun to react to Mr Tusk’s draft guidelines. Although his draft is generally well-received, several new lines of reflection open up. One, pushed especially by the Dutch – never slow in identifying their national interest – is that the unity of the EU will only be preserved during the Brexit fracas if no single member state is disproportionally affected by the departure of the Brits.

Another talking point is whether the guidelines should say that the decision to be taken by the European Council to allow Phase 2 of the Brexit talks to commence will be taken once “sufficient” progress has been made in Phase 1 or whether the 27 will wait for “substantial” progress to have been made.

[For those who have just joined Running Commentary, Phase 1 involves the Article 50 secession treaty and Phase 2 involves defining the framework for the future relationship of Britain in Europe. The British want a parallel process; the rest insist on sequential negotiations.]

An amended draft of the guidelines is made available today by the Financial Times. The new draft is more generous to the plight of EU citizens left stranded by Brexit. But it promises to be tougher on the money, rather implying that the UK will have to concede something concrete on the budgetary settlement (like a figure in euros) early on in the talks.

It would be useful if the final guidelines were to refer to the EU’s obligations to its neighbours under Article 8 TEU. They could also copy the European Parliament in promoting Article 217 TFEU as the likely legal basis for agreeing Britain’s future place in Europe.

Further thought is needed on the transitional period: here the idea of setting up a joint UK-EU authority to manage transition looks more attractive – as long as that body respects the European Court of Justice.

The balance of the argument in Brussels weighs in favour of their being one single secession treaty that includes the transition arrangements. From what I hear, Britain’s tentatively expressed preference for separate agreements will not fly.

It is fairly clear that most of the EU 27 governments still have some thinking to do on the longer term relationship with the UK. The ball lies in London: no substantive negotiations will take place unless the British government makes some concrete proposals. And no substantive decisions will be taken until the new German government is in place in the autumn. France and Germany will be the toughest nuts for Mrs May to crack.

The next step comes on 29 April when Mrs May, still prime minister, will come briefly to a Brussels meeting of the European Council before she leaves it. Once she’s left, the leaders of the EU 27 will finalise the Brexit guidelines and say goodbye to President Hollande. The Commission’s negotiation directives are expected on 5 May, to be signed off by the General Affairs Council on 22 May.

This blog has been revised on 20 April to refer to the amended draft guidelines.

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