For the past three years, the UK and EU have been locked in an odd Brexit tango, where moves on both sides have been guided by misunderstanding and mistrust. The past fortnight has seen a change of rhythm: the attention is now firmly on the UK as the outcome of the General Election will dictate the next steps.
Most EU leaders have diplomatically refrained from weighing in, with the remarkable exception of outgoing council President Donald Tusk. Yet they are all watching the campaign carefully – what is the view from Brussels about the election?
There is of course not a single unifying view in Brussels (as the tortuous discussions around various extensions have shown), but two broad priorities guide the thinking in EU circles. The first is to move beyond the current phase and into the trade and broader future relationship discussions, which future Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan has said the EU could do by mid-March. The second is to maintain as close a relationship with the UK as possible. It is not clear that EU leaders can get both – and they might not get either.
Although the sympathies of individual leaders will lie with one or the other of the largest two British political parties, one would be hard pressed to identify who Brussels as a whole will be rooting for in this election.
Labour’s vision for the future relationship is certainly closer to the EU’s preferred outcome, but Jeremy Corbyn is widely perceived as a Eurosceptic, and few trust his ability to unite his party – let alone the country – around his vision for Brexit and the future ties with the EU.
Even the Lib Dems’ position of revoking Article 50 is seen by many as problematic, as it would play right into the hand of Eurosceptics such as Marine Le Pen who paint the EU as a dictatorial project, ignoring the democratic will of its citizens.
Finally, Boris Johnson may have won over Emmanuel Macron and those who trust him to deliver this phase of Brexit rapidly, but his vision for a more distant future relationship aligns poorly with EU preferences. In particular, his reluctance to commit to level playing field clauses on state aid, the environment or workers rights has sparked fears that a heavily deregulated Britain could become a dangerous economic competitor on the EU’s doorstep.
In many ways, the worst outcome for Brussels would be the uncertainty of another hung Parliament. This could make ratifying any deal or agreeing any way forward very challenging. Sounds familiar? Yet this wouldn’t quite be Groundhog Day: without John Bercow the activist Speaker and many of the pro-EU Tories, it isn’t clear that the new Parliament would be able to coalesce to block a “no deal” exit once more – the next deadline of 31st January would once again loom large.
Looking beyond this immediate hurdle, the EU will also be hoping for a clear majority, one way or another, to improve the prospects of a successful negotiation of the future relationship. Brussels has now been preparing for these talks for many months and knows from experience that governments find it easier to compromise from a position of strength. The next stage in the negotiations will involve very difficult trade-offs between sovereignty and market access, which will certainly prove controversial in Westminster – a healthy majority would help a Prime Minister approach these discussions on a stronger footing.
While Britain is consumed by analysis of who might win the election – red or blue – EU leaders are less concerned about who will prevail than they are about getting what they’ve lacked over the past three years: clarity.