Two weeks ago today, Theresa May stood in Downing Street and announced an early general election. She did so with the explicit promise that a victory for her would strengthen her hand in EU negotiations over Brexit. A Conservative win would help her to achieve her goal of “a deep and special partnership” between departing Britain and a “strong and successful” European Union.
The snap June general election is thus, in a very profound sense, about the Brexit process as the prime minister conceives it. Yet, in the first two weeks of the campaign, Mrs May’s vision of Brexit – to the extent she has elaborated it in any detail – has looked increasingly difficult to believe in or have confidence in. Yet, if she is re-elected, this dangerous and uncertain version of Brexit will be the mandate she will claim, especially if it is set out in the Tory manifesto.
Mrs May has already outlined the essentials of her version in her Lancaster House speech and in the later white paper. She wants to withdraw from the institutions of the union – essentially the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of of the European court – while selectively reconnecting with the parts of them she thinks are in Britain’s interest. In addition, she wants a quick deal on reciprocal expatriate rights – and she refuses to pay an exit charge. She thinks all this can be done in two years.
It has long been clear that the EU does not see the process in this way at all. For the EU, the process must be orderly. The withdrawal, including the financial settlement, must be sorted first. Only once that has been done can the future relationship between the UK and the EU27 be discussed. Such talks would thus be very complex and could take years.
The FAZ leak may help rather than embarrass Mrs May in the election
The leaking to the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung this weekend of the commission’s version of a dinner last week between Mrs May and Jean-Claude Juncker shows how deep the differences really are. The two sides, Mr Juncker reported to Angela Merkel later, are living in different galaxies. Mrs Merkel echoed that warning last week in the Bundestag. The gulf was confirmed by the EU’s brisk adoption of its own negotiating stance in Brussels at the week’s end.
It is, of course, true that the commission’s version of the May-Juncker meeting is only one side of the story. Downing Street said yesterday it did not recognise it. It is also true that the commission will have leaked for its own purposes. The leak may, in fact, help rather than embarrass Mrs May in the election. But it is also true that the leak shows how large a distance separates the two galaxies on issues over which Mrs May is telling the voters she can be trusted uniquely.
Mrs May is making ruthlessly controlled campaign appearances offering clarity and certainty about Britain’s Brexit future. Yet the FAZ account exposes only conflict and uncertainty. Mrs May says the question of expatriate rights can be sorted in June; Mr Juncker says this is “way too optimistic”. Mrs May says the UK owes the EU no money; Mr Juncher says if there is no money there is no trade deal. Mrs May thinks she can leave the EU institutions and then opt back in selectively; the EU side says this sets off alarm bells and fears she has not been fully briefed about legal and political realities. Mrs May says: “Let us make Brexit a success.” Mr Juncker retorts: “Brexit cannot be a success.”
You do not have to think highly of Mr Juncker or to approve of his leaking tactics to see that there genuinely is a mass of very spiky hurdles to overcome here. Mr Juncker’s claim that he is now 10 times more sceptical that a deal will be struck should be taken with a pinch of salt. Yet the EU is playing for huge stakes. It has to isolate the Brexit effect and defeat the spectre of nationalism. It probably feels more confident of doing that after the Austrian, Dutch and, crucially, the first round of the French elections, and with the European economy strengthening. But it is still not in the business of making things easy for a Britain that may say it wants to be a partner but struggles to behave like one and talks in terms that underestimate difficulties.
Mrs May is right that an electoral victory will strengthen her hand. But to do what? That is the key question. The optimistic view is that it might allow her to make the compromises that a good UK partner with Europe might seek – not reneging on Brexit, but insisting to hard Brexiters that they cannot have it all, that essential British and European interests remain bound together, that deals must be struck, not spurned. If that is what she thinks, then let her say so soon. Too much evidence, otherwise, points in a more destructive and pessimistic direction.