Even if Theresa May wins the general election by a landslide, the EU won’t give us a better deal. This election is more about strengthening the prime minister’s hand in negotiations within her party rather than in negotiations in Europe.
May has, of course, justified her broken promise not to call a snap election on the basis it will allow her to cut a better deal. But what’s the argument or evidence to support that contention?
Sure, she’ll have more kudos when she sits round the negotiating table with other EU leaders as an elected leader with a fat majority. But that won’t change their view about what’s in their interests. Nor will it change their view about the importance of Britain as an economic and strategic partner.
The other leaders’ top priority will still be keeping their club together. That doesn’t mean punishing the UK. But it does mean ensuring that we don’t get such a good deal that other countries are tempted to quit. That, in turn, means that we won’t be able to “cherry-pick” those bits of EU membership that we like while rejecting the bits we don’t like.
Of course, it is in the EU’s economic and strategic interest to do a deal with us. But that isn’t changed one jot by the size of May’s majority. Its red lines will remain the same: the principles of the divorce (including a potentially huge exit payment) must be agreed before talks about a new deal; we must stick to the EU’s rules and keep up budget payments during any transition period between the divorce and agreeing a new arrangement; and there should be no cherry-picking.
The last European leader who came to Brussels demanding a special deal on the basis that he had just secured a domestic mandate was Alexis Tsipras. He was told this was irrelevant and sent packing. After several months of confrontation, the Greek premier called a referendum to back his position, which he won resoundingly. The eurozone didn’t flinch. Within days, he was forced into a humiliating U-turn that involved signing up to a worse deal than the one originally on offer.
Now the UK is not remotely as weak as Greece. But equally May is not as foolish as Tsipras. She seems to recognise that she’ll have to compromise to do a deal. And that appears to be her calculation in calling this election. That is certainly the way the financial markets and European officials are interpreting the move: as a ploy to give her a big enough majority so she doesn’t have to worry too much about the extremists on the right of her party.
Edited by Luke Lythgoe