EU officials uneasy as May’s snap election gambit goes awry

by Paul Taylor | 02.06.2017

Paris: Across Europe, quiet confidence is giving way to bewilderment and unease as Theresa May’s gambit of calling a snap election to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations and boost her authority to make difficult compromises seems to be going awry.

From Paris to Brussels to Berlin, officials are suddenly scrutinising each opinion poll, stunned at the possibility that the pragmatic May could end up politically weakened, with a slender majority hostage to the hardest Brexit crusaders in her Conservative party, or perhaps even have to cope with a hung parliament. Few continental policymakers say they have seriously thought about what would happen if Jeremy Corbyn won, an idea that seemed absurd a month ago.

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Negotiations with Brussels start just 10 days after polling day next Thursday, and EU officials are no longer sure who will be sitting opposite them at the table, or with what mandate. They have noticed that Brexit secretary David Davis has largely disappeared from the front line as the campaign has progressed, while the top civil servant in his ministry, Olly Robbins, appears to be gaining ascendancy behind the scenes in preparations for the talks.

“But we can’t say for sure whether this means that the professionals are gaining ground over the ideologues,” one EU official involved in Brussels preparations said. “Their opening position remains unrealistic and contradictory.”

European officials initially applauded the unelected May’s bold move to seek a clear new mandate without losing any negotiating time in the two-year countdown to Britain’s departure under Article 50. With the Labour party deeply split under the most radical left-wing leader since the early 1980s, continental governments and Brussels authorities assumed she was on course for a big majority.

They worried only that a landslide might make May too inebriated with success to see the need to compromise on crucial issues such as migration controls, a financial settlement and sticking with EU rules and jurisdiction for a transition period to avoid a “cliff edge” sudden loss of market access.

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European officials were relieved that the Conservative manifesto contained no show-stoppers. While restating determination to leave the single market and the customs union, it left some wiggle-room for an implementation period in which the UK might continue to observe EU rules and make some payments to keep tariff-free trade for a few years.

“We thought she could sideline the hard Brexiters with her own majority,” one senior European diplomat said. “The chance is still there, but we’re all a bit surprised at how such a weak opposition leader can have almost caught up. It seems more a matter of her losing than him winning.”

“Everything is possible now. It’s interesting but a little unnerving,” the diplomat said.

An official in another European capital said that even if May’s election gamble backfired, the economic realities of a darkening outlook for UK growth, investment and employment, and a growing scramble of companies shifting activity to the continent would force the British government to take a more realistic negotiating position by the end of this year.

“May has never said it, but one could imagine that the option to avoid a cliff edge would be to negotiate a period of a few years keeping the UK in the internal market in return for accepting continued free movement, perhaps applying more restrictive legislation to third country nationals but not to Europeans initially, making smaller budget payments that would decline over time,” the senior official said. “This would be rational for the UK side and negotiable at the EU end, but it requires a pretty strong (electoral) mandate to convince UK citizens, because it means Britain would become a ‘rule-taker’ for a few years,” he said.

“The weaker her majority, the riskier the negotiations become,” the official added.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

5 Responses to “EU officials uneasy as May’s snap election gambit goes awry”

  • “With the Labour party deeply split under the most radical left-wing leader since the early 1980″…
    Come on!! He’s not that far left! It’s the political landscape in Britain that has shunted to the right. The Tories are now heavily influenced by UKIP.

    Be careful not to unwittingly sound like the Mail.

  • The so-called “unthinkable” of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister is now a very distinct possibility and he is proving himself to be a calm and very strong leader. He has more friends in Europe than May and does not have to listen to the odious Davis, Johnson, Duncan-Smith et al.

  • Please don’t publish articles where the words of unnamed officials are ‘quoted’. The piece above is pure opinion based on not a single verifiable fact other than that Jeremy Corbyn is coming into his well-deserved own. ‘Calm and strong’ (Neil McCart) is what Jeremy Corbyn is and calm and strong is what we need. Stable? Methinks the horse has bolted.

  • ‘We thought she could have sidelined the hard Bexiteers with the size of her own majority” made me chuckle, as Ms. May has abrogated to herself the title of tha particular grouping.
    It betrays a hint of wishful thinking if not desperation! Indeed her performance to date would indicate a politician for home the notion of retreat has become a tool of managing her own party..
    Even if she wins this election, which is unfortunately still,where the smart money is probably on, she is fatally damaged and as such is more than ever to seek the hardest of hard Brexits in order to consolidate whatever support she can gain from the right-wing of her party.
    In complete contrast Jeremy Corbyn has conducted an extremely skillful and effective campaign in the teeth of incredible media bias andEUU in the main despite, rather than than because of his party apparatus.. Remeniscient of the campaigns of Bernie Saunders in the US and the pro-independence campaign in Scotland he has maned to enthuse a previously alienated section of the English electorate.
    Whether that will be enough to propel him to the door of No. 10 Downing Street remains to be seen. Even if he fails to achieve the ultimate prize: he has shown that a genuinely left-wing message can have some appeal to modern electorate.
    Should he succeed and form an administration with the help of other parties,: I believe the EU will find in Jeremy Corbyn a ma much closer to the mainstream of European politics than Theresa May. In short, I believe a Corbyn administration particularly if supported by smaller pro-EU parties would if not prepared to tear up the whole ruinous Brexit project, would prove considerably easier to do business with than his fractious Conservative counterparts.

  • Nope more like: across Europe, the bewilderment and unease at the spectacle of Theresa May’s train wreck is causing a quiet hope that the UK will come to its senses and consign Brexit to the trash bin of history.

    No one wants brexit other than a minority collective of anti-EU militants, racists and nationalists.

    EU Officials want the UK to remain. Majority of the UK wants the UK to remain. An advisory poll isn’t a mandate.