Rt. Hon. Theresa May MP
10 Downing Street
SW1A 2AA, London
Dear Prime Minister,
Amid challenging circumstances following the results of the latest UK election, we wish your government good luck with the opening of the Brexit negotiations in Brussels. As you are surely aware, the UK general election was closely followed in the EU Member States and the EU institutions. As a research team, we are happy to provide you with a short overview and analysis of the reactions to the UK elections in Brussels, France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands.
Needless to say, the UK elections were closely monitored in Brussels by the EU institutions. You have probably already received the letter from European Council President, Donald Tusk, congratulating you on your reappointment as Prime Minister. President Tusk was also worried of any possible delays on the Brexit negotiations, and he reminded you that the time frame set by Article 50 TFEU is very tight. Mr. Tusk expressed his concern that further delays could result in the impossibility of agreeing a deal on time. On the other hand, the European Commission Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, presented a more conciliatory message and called for your team to start negotiating when they feel ready. He later welcomed your decision not to delay negotiations any further and was pleased to start, as you know, on 19th June.
The contrast, Mrs May, between the UK and the French elections this year, is very striking. Across the Channel we have seen nothing less than a wholesale renewal of the French political class. Your youthful and determined counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron secured an absolute majority in parliament for his brand new party, La République en Marche. The UK election took place in the midst of all this upheaval, and so perhaps attracted less attention than we might have otherwise expected. The focus in France was definitely on what the elections meant for Brexit, and how the outcome compared to the results in France. The UK and France, Mrs May, are old friends; after all, your first trip after your re-election was to Paris to watch a friendly France-England football game in the company of Mr. Macron. He teased you about staying in the EU, but he is aware that it is not possible. He will stick with the other EU26 as these negotiations start up. So, expect a friendly Franco-British fight over the Brexit negotiating table. You and your new government are seen in Paris as a worthy partner in the Brexit negotiations. Don’t let them down.
The UK elections were also followed in Italy. Political observers mostly focussed on the personality of the two main party leaders, yourself and Jeremy Corbyn. The result of the election was interpreted as a defeat for the Conservative Party, and was ascribed to your own campaigning performance, Mrs May, especially your choices with regard to the electoral manifesto and your Brexit slogans. On the other hand, Italian media found renewed interest in the figure of Jeremy Corbyn, who is now described as the strongest political leader in the country. Perhaps surprisingly, there was not so much debate on the consequences of the vote for the Brexit negotiations. The most common reaction was a general expectation of further delays. This is in clear contrast with the attention to the recent presidential and parliamentary elections in France, whose implications for the future of Europe were more thoroughly inspected and discussed in Italy.
A relevant issue in the EU-27 Brexit negotiating mandate relates to the need to seek an agreement with Spain in relation to Gibraltar. Curiously, this was not really mentioned in the evaluations of the UK elections found in Spain. One of the aspects that drew most attention was the decline of the Scottish National Party, which was interpreted as a lack of appetite for independence. There has been no major reaction to the results of the UK election from the Spanish government or the main political parties – which were approaching the debate of a motion of no-confidence in parliament in the days after the UK election. The position of the Spanish government remains unchanged, fully endorsing the mandate agreed by the European Council. In general, media and political commentators in Spain are of the opinion that the results might delay Brexit negotiations, but there is no consensus as to whether this will have an effect on the type of Brexit and how it will affect Spanish citizens.
Similar reactions can be read in the media of your EU-partners further north. In Germany, the election result is interpreted as a gamble-gone-wrong for the Conservative Party. The negotiating position of the UK is considered to have weakened now that the prospects of the formation of a strong and resolute government have declined. While the German government officially refrained from comment on the result, officials also stressed that negotiations needed to start as soon as possible. In neighbouring Netherlands, the main focus in the past week has been on domestic politics, after yet another failed attempt to form a coalition government. The election of March 15th has left the Netherlands – traditionally a close ally of the UK in the EU context – with a fragmented parliament and few viable options for a majority government. As such, the government currently assumes a caretaker role, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte remained vague in his initial reaction to the UK election result, tweeting “The British people have chosen. What the new constellation means for Brexit remains to be seen. NL is ready for cooperation”.
We hope, Mrs. May that this overview is useful for you. As you can see, the UK elections were well followed elsewhere in Europe, but they were not top of the agenda for national governments. There was perhaps some more anticipation in Brussels. The most common reaction to the results was to expect further delays in Brexit negotiations, which was interpreted as being much more problematic for the UK than for the EU-27. The evaluation of the election outcome across the continent was not excessively positive for you personally, Prime Minister. Your campaigning mistakes were clearly identified as one of the reasons for the loss of your overall majority in the House of Commons. If the reactions to the UK election have demonstrated anything, it is that your European partners are doing something very British, Mrs. May: Keeping calm and carrying on. There is a clear sense of unity and messages from different countries are generally similar. Whereas the UK decision to leave the EU is regretted, there is a clear sense across Europe that it is an outcome which is difficult to avoid, and that it is largely up to the UK to determine Brexit’s nature.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.