Elec­tion leaves May in bind for Brexit talks

Cries for closer ties to Euro­pean Union have grown louder

The Dallas Morning News - - WORLD - Stephen Cas­tle, The New York Times

LON­DON — Ridiculed by the right-wing tabloid me­dia and ig­nored by Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May as she pur­sued plans for a clean break with the Euro­pean Union, Bri­tain’s pro-Euro­peans sud­denly have some­thing they have long wanted: lever­age. After the re­cent stun­ning gen­eral elec­tion, in which her govern­ing Con­ser­va­tive Party lost its par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity, May faces pres­sure from both in­side and out­side the party to soften her plans to exit the bloc, a process known as Brexit, as talks are set to be­gin Mon­day.

The pro-Europe Bri­tons’ de­mands that May main­tain closer ties to the Euro­pean Union have grown louder — in par­tic­u­lar the calls to keep Bri­tain in Europe’s cus­toms union, which pro­vides tar­iff-free ac­cess to Euro­pean mar­kets and helps in­te­grate the Bri­tish and Euro­pean economies.

For the first time since the ref­er­en­dum on Bri­tain’s exit, there is “an op­por­tu­nity to have a much bet­ter re­la­tion­ship with the Euro­pean Union,” said Roland Rudd, a se­nior fig­ure in the de­feated “re­main” cam­paign and founder of Fins­bury, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany.

No easy op­tions

Anand Menon, a pro­fes­sor of Euro­pean pol­i­tics and for­eign af­fairs at King’s Col­lege Lon­don, said, “I think on bal­ance in the House of Com­mons there is a ma­jor­ity for some­thing softer than Theresa May’s idea of Brexit.”

This, Menon said, cre­ates a dif­fi­cult dy­namic for May. She emerged from the snap elec­tion she called with a far weaker hand for Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions, and must also avert a re­turn to feuding over Europe in her Con­ser­va­tive Party, where there is still strong sup­port for a tough stance.

The new and changed po­lit­i­cal land­scape makes the prospect of two out­comes more likely, he said: “a softer Brexit” or “a chaotic Brexit.”

For May, there are no easy op­tions. If she waters down her exit strat­egy — as her pre­de­ces­sor, David Cameron, has urged her to con­sider — that could set off a re­bel­lion from hard-line “leave” sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing David Davis, the Cabi­net min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for ne­go­ti­at­ing Bri­tain’s with­drawal, and For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son. Both are po­ten­tial suc­ces­sors to May.

Yet, if she does not move away from their agenda, which pri­or­i­tizes con­trol over im­mi­gra­tion and law­mak­ing above the coun­try’s eco­nomic in­ter­ests, May risks leg­isla­tive grid­lock in Par­lia­ment, where she has no clear ma­jor­ity and must rely on 10 law­mak­ers from North­ern Ire­land’s Demo­cratic Union­ist Party.

Less lever­age

Cen­tral to her at­tempts to gov­ern ef­fec­tively will be the more pro-Euro­pean politi­cians in May’s gov­ern­ment. She pro­moted one of them, Damian Green, a long­time ally, to first sec­re­tary of state and kept in place Philip Ham­mond, the chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer, whom she had in­tended to fire, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports.

Ham­mond is be­lieved to be press­ing May to make a U-turn and con­sider re­tain­ing mem­ber­ship of Europe’s cus­toms union. That could be done without ac­cept­ing the free move­ment of Euro­pean work­ers, which May is de­ter­mined to end in order to curb im­mi­gra­tion. But it would most likely mean aban­don­ing her idea of strik­ing bi­lat­eral trade deals with non-Euro­pean na­tions, in­clud­ing the United States.

The prospect of Bri­tain’s con­tin­u­ing in­def­i­nitely in Europe’s sin­gle mar­ket, which re­moves non-tar­iff bar­ri­ers and helps trade in ser­vices, is less likely. That would al­most cer­tainly in­volve ac­cept­ing free move­ment, some­thing that both May and La­bor leader Jeremy Cor­byn have ruled out.

May could stall the ne­go­ti­a­tions for a time, be­cause the im­me­di­ate fo­cus of the talks will be on other is­sues, in­clud­ing the rights of EU cit­i­zens liv­ing in Bri­tain.

But the La­bor Party knows that in her weak­ened po­si­tion in Par­lia­ment, the prime min­is­ter could even­tu­ally be de­feated over a range of is­sues, in­clud­ing Brexit-re­lated bills. Even if she gets such leg­is­la­tion through the House of Com­mons, she will have to worry about the un­elected House of Lords, where she has no ma­jor­ity, ei­ther.

That cham­ber de­layed her plans to an­nounce, by in­vok­ing Ar­ti­cle 50, that Bri­tain was leav­ing the EU, but ul­ti­mately cleared the way.

By tra­di­tion, the House of Lords yields to the House of Com­mons on is­sues that were in the govern­ing party’s elec­tion man­i­festo, and there­fore have been en­dorsed by the vot­ers. But, after her elec­toral set­back, that con­ven­tion is un­likely to ap­ply to May’s exit plans.

“It was very, very dif­fi­cult for Theresa May be­fore the elec­tion,” Menon said, “and it has now be­come sig­nif­i­cantly more dif­fi­cult still.”


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