Can the UK election results soften the Brexit blow?
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The British electorate appears to have voted in favour of a “soft” exit from the EU. But as the EU’s exasperation over Britain’s risky political gambles hardens, is a “soft Brexit” a possible option or is England once again dreaming?
The shock of the British snap poll results had barely settled Friday morning when European leaders and EU officials had started voicing and tweeting their warnings over the start of the Brexit process.
With the deadlines over the future of the EU looming, former Belgian prime minister and current member of the European Parliament (MEP) Guy Verhofstadt tweeted his exasperation over his British counterparts’ risky political gambles.
In a tweet that said it all, Verhofstadt castigated former British Prime Minister David Cameron for taking a political gamble with a Brexit referendum that he never had to hold, followed by current Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to hold an election three years ahead of schedule.
Their gambles backfired spectacularly in both cases.
Yet another own goal, after Cameron now May, will make already complex negotiations even more complicated.— Guy Verhofstadt (@GuyVerhofstadt) June 9, 2017
The impatience from the EU side is understandable. Under the rules of EU disengagement, the Brexit timetable is tight. Brexit talks are scheduled to start in Brussels on June 19. Meanwhile the two-year negotiating period, mandated under Article 50 of the European Union Treaty, expires in March 2019.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, who is tasked with launching the talks a week from Monday, attempted a more upbeat tone when he noted, “Brexit negotiations should start when UK is ready; timetable and EU positions are clear. Let's put our minds together on striking a deal,” in a Twitter post.
#Brexit negotiations should start when UK is ready; timetable and EU positions are clear. Let's put our minds together on striking a deal— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) June 9, 2017
But Michael Roth, Germany’s European affairs minister, was not pulling his punches when he told a German radio station the UK’s “clock is ticking, irrespective of who will form the British government…We should not waste any time".
Is no deal better than a bad deal?
Nearly a year after 52 percent of the British public voted to exit the EU, the pressure is mounting on British politicians and negotiators to start what promises to be a complex negotiation process.
EU President Donald Tusk cut to the heart of the matter when he tweeted, “We don’t know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end. Do your best to avoid a 'no deal' as [a] result of 'no negotiations'."
Under Article 50, a withdrawing member state must negotiate the practical terms of exit within two years of notifying the bloc of its intention to withdraw, unless all the parties unanimously agree to extend the two-year period.
But if there is no unanimous decision, or if the two-year talks end with no agreement, the withdrawal must go ahead with no formal deal in place.
On the campaign trail, May’s repeated assertions that “no deal is better than a bad deal” angered many of her own party members and lost her supporters among anti-Brexit Conservative voters.
“She came across as being stiff and robotic and repeating these mantras which don’t make any sense. There’s no point in saying something that is just not true – like no deal is better than a bad deal. Anybody who thinks about it knows that it is not true. We need to have an agreement on our futures,” said Christopher Chantrey, former chairman of British Conservatives in Paris, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “You need to find a Brexit solution. There isn’t only one [solution]. She acts as if there’s only one, but there are others.”
How soft is soft enough?
Since the shock Brexit vote last year, a number of experts have been discussing what have been called “soft” options, which involve some form of membership of the European Union single market, in return for a degree of free movement.
One of the approaches -- sometimes called the Norway option -- involves having access to the single market via membership of the European Economic Area (EEA). But while Norway has access to the single market, it has no say in how regulations are set and Oslo must accept free movement of people stipulations as well as meet its budgetary contributions.
Another soft option is what is called the Swiss option or having access to the single market with trade deals for different sectors.
“There are ways of remaining [in the EU] with Swiss-style agreements, or staying in the single market, or staying in the customs’ union, which would really soften the blow as far as the economy is concerned. It will never be as good as EU membership. By definition, if you leave the European Union, you’re opting for something which is less good. But there are less damaging alternatives and we need somebody to lead us who will be open to that,” said Chantrey.
Some British experts believe the effect of May’s latest drubbing in the polls could be the inclusion of a soft Brexit option on the table.
"What the UK asks for might not be quite as hard, quite as tough as she was asking for before. We might see a softening of the stance in response to this election result," Simon Hix of the London School of Economics told the AFP.
Northern Ireland, Scotland want it soft
May’s political lifesaver move to form an alliance with Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) -- which won 10 seats in Thursday’s elections -- could also be a push for a soft Brexit.
Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, has been a vocal advocate for keeping Northern Ireland within the single market after Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc.
In an interview with Sky News, Foster stressed that, “No one wants to see a hard Brexit. What we want to see is a workable plan to leave the European Union, and that’s what the national vote was about – therefore we need to get on with that.”
The DUP on Friday announced it was entering discussions with the Conservatives although there were no details released on how the parties intend to work together.
In a brief statement, Foster said she had spoken with May and the two parties will explore how to “bring stability to our nation at this time of great challenge".
In Scotland too, the calls for a soft Brexit got louder following the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) poor showing in the polls.
With the Scottish secessionist party losing 21 of their 56 seats, the SNP has to give up on a move to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence following a 2014 poll which saw 55 percent voting to stay in the UK.
Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU in last year’s referendum.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said she would seek an alliance with like-minded parties to try to keep the Conservatives out of government and to keep both Scotland and the UK within the single market as part of the Brexit talks.
"Last night, it was shown that the reckless pursuit of a hard Brexit must be abandoned," she said. "I'm appealing to (lawmakers) from all parties to join together to try to keep Scotland and the UK in the single market ... and bring some order to the negotiations."
But EU leaders and senior officials have repeatedly warned that a soft Brexit was not an option and that a full member state that decides to leave the bloc cannot “cherry pick” its exit strategy.
That has not stopped Britons dismayed with the Brexit vote from pitching their hopes on a soft exit option. By all accounts the verdict of Wednesday’s elections, along with the high youth turnout, appears to be that the British public would prefer a soft Brexit.
The question though is whether May will be attentive to those voices when Brexit talks start later this month. But that of course would depend on whether she’s still Britain’s prime minister by then.