It was dubbed the “Brexit election” but the fallout from our decision to leave Europe continues to ricochet along the corridors of power today, as a shock hung parliament mirrors sharp divisions on the issue.
The UK’s exit from Europe has been the source of fierce debate since we voted to leave last June. And now, more than ever before, the prospect of us reaching any kind of deal with Brussels seems increasingly remote.
Theresa May made her vision of “hard Brexit” – leaving the single market to regain full control of the UK’s borders – the central tenet of her election campaign, promising “strong and stable” leadership out of the EU.
But her message failed to resonate with voters, hundreds upon thousands of whom voiced their discontent by getting behind Jeremy Corbyn. May now finds herself in the unenviable position of falling short on a Conservative majority in a snap election intended solely to shore up her support for Brexit.
With the Conservatives now set to form a minority coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, how has our position in relation to leaving Europe shifted?
A second referendum is unlikely...
As the possibility of a hung parliament hit home in the early hours of this morning, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage appeared on the BBC to declare that “we may be looking down the barrel of a second (EU) referendum”.
However, right now this seems doubtful.
Kallum Pickering, senior economist at Berenberg, tells CBS, "Will the UK change its mind on Brexit? Maybe but not very likely."
“I doubt we are going to have another referendum. The political circumstances need to change dramatically for this to happen,” Professor Roberta Guerrina, head of politics at the University of Surrey tells Stylist.
He concedes May has been “badly damaged and diminished” by this result, but believes another general election – possibly as early as October – would precede any discussion on a second EU vote.
This could happen even with the DUP-Tory coalition, since any compromise between the two parties will be fragile and only time will tell whether it works.
“It’s more likely they’ll be a second general election and the possibility of a second EU vote is mooted as part of campaigning for that – as we saw with the Lib Dem manifesto this time around,” she tells Stylist. “They’ll definitely be another election before 2022 and there may even be one before the end of the year.”
Whether or not a second vote to leave the EU happens also depends on how May and the Conservatives change their position on Brexit, in response to the staggering losses they suffered yesterday.
But Dr. Simpson feels it’s likely that “we will leave, that ship has sailed”. What might happen, however, is that “the Tories will back down under pressure to revise their hard Brexit policies”.
‘Hard Brexit’ is out of the equation now
However the political topography of Westminster takes shape over the coming weeks, the surge of support for Labour means May’s vision of a “hard Brexit” is very unlikely to come to fruition now.
“May has taken a kicking due to the lack of specifics in her post-Brexit vision,” says Dr. Simpson. “It completely backfired. It was supposed to be the Brexit election and the electorate just didn’t buy it.”
“A minor government, such as the one that will result from this election, will struggle to get its policy agenda through parliament,” says Prof. Guerrina. “It will have to work much harder to build consensus, which is likely to mitigate the influence of the advocates of hard Brexit within the Conservative party.”
With the public voting in large swathes of opposition to Westminster, May will have no choice but to listen to those against a hard Brexit. Leaving the single market, the tariff-free trading bloc for EU members, is therefore unlikely.
This means not subjecting businesses to punitive import tariffs and costs – but only if we guarantee some free movement of goods, services, capital and labour that is central to the single market structure.
May initially campaigned hard for the opposite: to leave the market in order to close our borders.
“The Conservative Party will not be able to see any Brexit deal through the Commons unless they can win opposition support and this will not be forthcoming if the terms of the deal mean exit from the EU market,” says professor John Callaghan, lecturer in politics at the University of Salford.
“That means a hard Brexit is much less likely than it was before the election was called.”
Taylor agrees that “it would be very difficult now for the Tories to leave the single market”. This, he says was “a key pillar of May’s pitch” and it failed to convince people.
Moreover, since the UK “can’t pick and choose” what policies we keep with the EU, a degree of free movement must go hand-in-hand with staying within the single market.
The Conservatives’ proposed coalition with the DUC is another reason why we are likely to stay within the single market.
“The DUP takes a much softer line on the single market than the Conservatives, because it’s in their interests to have a friction-less border between Northern Ireland and the Republic,” says Dr. Simpson.
“They’re a pro-Brexit party but they’re not as hard-line as the Tories in their approach to leaving the EU. Though they align well with the Tories, there are fundamental differences between the two parties. A coalition between them won’t be a walk in the park.”
Any agreement negotiated between them, therefore, will likely involve a compromise over the single market.
Either way, negotiations will be delayed
One thing is for certain; Brexit negotiations are now hanging in the balance and will almost certainly be postponed while Britain works out not only its position on leaving the EU, but also what politicians will take the lead on this.
“The Brexit clock started ticking when May triggered Article 50 in March,” writes Dr. Simpson.
“Taking six weeks out of the two-year Brexit negotiating window to conduct a general election was risky, as it has eaten into the time available to deal with the EU. Now, with so much uncertainty about how the next government will be formed, more time will inevitably be lost.”
Negotiations to leave the EU are due to start on June 19 and Donald Tusk, the European Council president, has warned that there may be “no deal” if talks are delayed.
“We don’t know when Brexit talks start,” he tweeted this morning. “We know when they must end. Do your best to avoid a ‘no deal’ as result of ‘no negotiations.’”
UK is currently scheduled to leave the EU on March 29 2019, regardless of whether post-Brexit arrangements have been agreed.
Talks may be further delayed if there’s a vote of no confidence in May: “but that will require a lot of coordination between the opposition parties,” says Prof. Guerrina.
EU negotiators won’t wait forever
Senior EU members are all ready to negotiate on a deal – but we’re now in the position where we are not.
With the shock result of the general election, the UK is no longer clear about how it will exit the EU; let alone when.
While chief Brexit negotiator Michele Bernier has indicated a fairly relaxed approach, saying, “Brexit negotiations should start when (the) UK is ready”, other officials appear less patient.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says he hopes there will be no “further delay” to the start of talks, despite the fallout from the election.
“As far as the Commission is concerned we can open negotiations tomorrow morning at half past nine,” he says.
We now have more say over our exit
Perhaps the most obvious outcome of this election is that no party has presented a coherent vision of exactly what Brexit Britain will look like.
The electorate are no clearer now on how Britain will leave the EU than we were six weeks ago, or even last year.
This lack of a convincing strategy – and the consequent lack of a political majority – obliges MPs from all parties to form an open dialogue on how we will handle our EU divorce.
“What will happen now is that the opposition will be able to scrutinise more closely any deal the government is going to strike with the European Union,” says Prof. Guerrina. “The opposition parties will also be able to have greater influence on the way the UK legislative framework will develop after Brexit.”
Without a mandate for hard Brexit, all options are still on the table and can be decided upon as the process of leaving gets underway.
“Most people voting in the EU referendum on both sides of the divide had little hard evidence upon which to make a decision,” says Callaghan.
“This general election result increases the chances that they will be able to influence the Brexit deal, as hard evidence concerning the terms of the deal begins to emerge once the negotiations get underway.”
“We will have more say,” says Taylor. “The government will have to listen very carefully. However the group with the loudest voice is the DUP.”