Brussels has reacted to the UK General Election news in typical bureaucratic and calculated manner which has seen the negotiating power during the Brexit talks swing to rest firmly in the hands of the EU Commission.
Whilst early indications from Michel Barnier fueled hopes that the EU Commission would be willing to amend the timeline and be flexible, these wishes were quickly dismissed by President’s Junker and Tusk, both of whom struck a very hard line on the Brexit negotiations.
In the eyes of the EU Institutions, it was the UK’s decision to invoke the Article 50 two-year process and now that this has begun there will not be amending it. The EU and the UK now face a tight two-year timeline to conclude the divorce before March 2019.
The European Institutions see this as an opportunity to exploit the new weaknesses of Theresa May and her Conservative Government. By not deviating from the agreed two-year timeline the European Commission is making clear to the UK that they are ready to begin negotiations immediately, putting the UK on the back foot.
Perhaps even more importantly, President Junker also suggested during a press conference that, despite the result of last night’s election, there would be no extending the two-year negotiation process: “Before negotiations can be extended, they first need to start. As far as the commission is concerned we can open negotiations tomorrow morning at half past nine.”
One ominous tweet from President Tusk made very clear that whilst the start date of negotiations is not yet known, the end date is. The President then went on to suggest that the UK should not let the negotiations fail without even beginning them. The Commission has certainly put pressure on the UK and taken the front foot in these negotiations.
Another reason for the Commission and Council’s stance is that it ensures the negotiating priorities of the EU Commission are discussed first. Before the election, Theresa May had hoped that the UK could negotiate access to the single market or a free trade arrangement alongside the so-called “divorce bill”. The European Commission has always held the view that the issue of European citizens’ rights, the “divorce bill” and Ireland need to be settled before the future relationship could be discussed. Theresa May had hoped that with a large mandate she would be able to demand simultaneous negotiations.
However, with the Commission refusing to alter the timeline, the UK now have to agree to the EU Commission’s negotiating terms quickly to proceed to potential single market access discussion. This will place the UK in a far weaker position during the future relationship negotiations as the issue of money owed to the EU following the withdrawal of the UK, an important negotiating chip, will have been settled early. This is exactly why the EU Commission wish to proceed with the current timeline and ensure they control not only the speed of the negotiations but also the agenda.
The European Parliament were even more scathing of Theresa May with Guy Vergofstadt, Chief Brexit Negotiator for the EU Parliament tweeting that the UK have scored yet another own goal and made these negotiations even more difficult for themselves. Even more dramatic was Elmar Brok, the Brexit representative for Angela Merkel’s faction in the European parliament who said that Theresa May’s authority in her own party is broken.
Whilst there has not been any indication that the European Institutions believe last night’s result will drastically alter the content of the negotiations, or expected outcome, mainstream media across Europe certainly see this as a turning point. It is now expected the UK to adopt a more pragmatic and realistic view of forthcoming negotiations.
The media on the continent is generally more left wing than the UK press and many of these outlets have hailed Jeremy Corbyn’s victory as an indication the UK is beginning to turn away from the hard Brexit vision and beginning to realise the importance of the European Union.
In Netherlands for example, the Algemene Dagblad said that British voter stubbornly punishes May’s arrogance and Italy’s Corriere della Sera saying that Mrs May was a “disaster” during the election campaign – “cold, querulous, wedded to her slogans”.
Headlines were typically sympathetic across most of Europe, with media outlets perhaps trying to demonstrate to voters the perils of voting for a populist anti-EU party over the coming years.