Opinion
14.05.17

Why Europe is underwhelmed by the UK's general election politicking

Mark Dawson comments on the UK election campaign in Scotland's The Herald.

There is a spectre haunting Britain. In this nightmarish vision, the EU, donning the tricks of the Russian secret service, is trying to undermine British democracy. By leaking details of secret conversations, and indicating that it will be punitive in Brexit negotiations, the EU hopes to engineer a government of its choosing. In the best-case scenario, Brexit as a whole will be reversed; in the worst, a wimpish Prime Minister, deep in the pocket of Brussels, will be returned to power.

In response, the current government's firm negotiating stance and election showdown with Britain’s saboteur opposition has placed Brussels and Berlin on the defensive. Post-election, they will no longer be able to rely on Europe’s fifth column in London – the terrifying Liberal Democrats – to hold up future negotiations. With a resounding majority in the bag, the EU’s last hope of resisting the prime minister’s trade demands will be dashed.

Like all visions, this version says much more about the patient than it does about the future. Above all, it assumes a dazzling ignorance on the part of EU leaders on how British politics works. Barely a day goes by where the sentiment is not expressed somewhere in the UK that European leaders still think Brexit will be averted or at least that cooler heads will insist upon a soft separation.

EU leaders can speak English too. British newspapers (for a few years yet at least) remain regular reading fodder for Europe’s political elite. They thus know well that the hard Brexit faction has won the political debate in Westminster, just as they know that parliament posed no real obstacle to Britain’s EU departure. They are also aware that this general election has nothing to do with crushing them and everything to do with crushing any remaining opposition to the present government. Brussels is not interfering in this election for the simple reason that it doesn’t need to. It knows that the election result will have little bearing on how Brexit proceeds.

The main goal of the government’s vision is to play the nationalist card. Opponents of the prime minister are not just opposing the government; they are opposing the country. If the election battle-lines are drawn in terms of “who can negotiate best for Britain” those who depart from the settled line can easily be cast as undermining the national interest. There is an eerie similarity between this line and the rhetoric of the Erdogans and Orbans of our world: that domestic opponents are allied to external enemies.

The difficulty is that Europe can play the nationalism card too. This is the most important lesson to be drawn from the string of national elections since Donald Trump's elevation to the US presidency. Spooked by the threat of populism and sensing the erosion of the post-war consensus upon which European peace and prosperity has been built, Europe’s population has rallied to Europe, not against it. The antidote to Marine Le Pen was the election of the most pro-European French President in recent history.

The European response to the UK election campaign so far has thus fallen in one of two boxes. The first is for the EU to respond to the UK’s treatment of Brexit as a negotiation to don its own negotiating hat. The UK Government has managed to engineer something quite extraordinary given the EU’s recent history – an almost uniform consensus among the other member states on how the UK should be treated. The second response has been apathy. The election campaigns in France and Germany have barely mentioned Brexit at all. European leaders, beginning with Emmanuel Macron, are already thinking about how the EU should look with the UK gone, from the question of which language will predominate to the possibility of a deeper Eurozone driven by a strengthened Franco-German axis. The most typical response was one I heard a few weeks ago from a German official: “Brexit? We’re so over it..”

Read the op-ed in Scotland's The Herald here.