PM’s decision aims to dispel the lingering belief in Europe that Britain will change its mind about leaving the EU
Tuesday 18 April 2017
Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
Of the many reasons Theresa May supplied for calling a general election, the Conservative leader provided one particularly important one. She believes she still needs to convince her European counterparts that Brexit does indeed mean Brexit.
A Brexit mandate, delivering a large Conservative Commons majority, would sweep away the last hope that that the UK’s referendum decision last June could be reversed.
On this basis, a resounding majority for May would remove any motive for the EU negotiators to make the UK’s Brexit terms as unpalatable as possible in the belief that it would help UK voters realise the terms of Brexit are just too painful to accept.
It is true that among parts of the EU leadership, and the European public, there remains a lingering belief – something more than wistful regret – that the British people can be helped to change their mind. Even though article 50 has been triggered, many EU lawyers believe a legal route is available for Britain to revoke Brexit, probably through a Commons vote in the winter of 2018.
This belief that the UK not only made the wrong decision, but can yet be persuaded not to go through with it, gripped Europe’s leadership from the start. Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, in the immediate wake of the referendum last June said politicians in London “should have the possibility to reconsider the consequences of an exit”. There is after all a long European history of second EU referendums in the wake of “incorrect results”, including in Ireland and France.
As recently as March, Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU commission president, said he hoped the UK would rejoin the EU. “The day will come when the UK will re-enter the EU boat,” he said. The European parliament’s chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, predicted in a recent speech in Brussels that young Britons would come to see the referendum as a “catfight in the Conservative party that got out of hand” and described Brexit as “a loss of time, a waste of energy, stupidity”.
Donald Tusk, the EU council president, has said he would be the happiest man alive if Britain decided to think again.
He said: “After the decision in the UK we have to respect the decision of the referendum. If it is reversible or not, this is in the British hands. I would be the happiest one if it reversible but we now have to start our formal works.”
Even France, the country most willing to impose tough Brexit terms, believes the UK only voted as it did due to the lies of Brexiters such as Boris Johnson. The French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, was blunt enough about his British counterpart: “You know very well what his style and method are. During the campaign, you know he told a lot of lies to the British people and now it is him who has his back against the wall.”
In response, Lord Hill, the UK’s former EU commissioner, said: “I think there is a surprisingly widely held view that Britain might still decide to stay in. And I think that partly explains why previously Donald Tusk has talked about it as hard Brexit or no exit.
“I think they also believe when people start to look at the practical consequences of disentangling ourselves from this very complicated relationship, then maybe we will think again.”
The European media coverage of the UK’s Brexit debate fuels the belief the UK could change its mind. That coverage often focuses on the pro-European demonstrations, the divisions between the Brexiters and any spotty signs that the UK economy is being damaged.
Lengthy interviews with figures such as Nick Clegg appear in the German press, such as Handelsblatt, or with Sadiq Khan in Le Monde. The speeches by Tony Blair explicitly calling for the remain camp to keep open the options of the UK remaining in the EU have been given generous coverage.
UK negotiators, including some in cabinet, believe this European mindset could make the negotiations more difficult, and this lurking hidden agenda would reduce the EU’s will to compromise.
If May wins a large Commons majority, the lingering hope that Britain will change its mind will be dashed. There will instead be a double democratic lock – a narrow referendum decision affirmed in a comprehensive general election verdict.
UK officials believe this double mandate will lead the EU not to play games, but accept the best solution is to reach a mutually agreeable long-term trading relationship.
Any EU motive to erect artificial roadblocks, over the sequencing of the talks, the Brexit divorce costs, or passporting rights would be reduced. The initial signs suggested Europe had got the message.
Norbert Röttgen, a member of Merkel’s conservatives and head of the foreign affairs committee, said the decision to go for an election meant the chances of a reversal of the UK decision would be reduced.
“Hopes for an exit from Brexit are completely unfounded. For the first time the prime minister is programmatically committing the Tories to Brexit.”
But Britain’s hope that it will change the European view may prove wrong. Experience shows the EU does not necessarily crumble when faced by negotiators armed with a fresh mandate from their people.
In 2015 the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tspiras, leader of the leftist Syriza party, called a referendum and a snap election, in a bid to give himself extra bargaining clout in the bailout talks, and little good it did him.
The overwhelming EU view remains that the UK must not be seen to benefit from any decision to leave the EU whether that decision is taken by referendum or by an election.