Brexit: UK general election result may have major impact on talks – The Guardian

Brexit: UK general election result may have major impact on talks – The Guardian

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Brussels and other EU capitals will await the result of the UK general election with more than usual interest: it could have a major impact on potentially fraught talks over Britain’s exit from the bloc, scheduled to begin barely 10 days later.

The first formal Brexit negotiating round under article 50 is due to take place on 19 or 20 June, with the chances of a bruising early clash over the sequencing of the talks – and the size of the divorce settlement in particular – seen as high.

European diplomats in London and Brussels said the election outcome could have a real bearing on the talks if Theresa May finds herself weakened by a smaller than expected majority or – more dramatically – confronted with a hung parliament.

“It’s clear if the prime minister wins a much smaller majority than she was hoping for, the talks could be impacted,” one senior EU diplomat said. “One could imagine pressures from inside her party. She might have to change her team, it could all take time.”

May last month accused Brussels and the EU27 of “issuing threats” against Britain in an attempt “to affect the result of the election”. In fact, continental capitals would mostly prefer the government to have a strong majority since it would then feel confident enough to make concessions.

The smaller the majority in Westminster, “the more likely it is that the government will run into difficulty with MPs, maybe even a rebellion in parliament,” a London-based Benelux diplomat said. “The negotiators will be constantly watching their backs. It’s not a recipe for good talks.”

A hung parliament, though viewed as less likely, would have an even greater impact on the talks, almost certainly delaying their start while a coalition government was formed in London and set about redefining the UK’s Brexit negotiating positions.

Few European governments are predicting a Labour victory. Most believe May will be returned with an enhanced majority – and they expect that to lead to at best difficult talks, and at worst a breakdown of the negotiations, possibly as early as this summer.

There are several clear bones of contention. The EU has made clear it expects “sufficient progress” to be made on the divorce deal – including the size of the UK’s exit bill, citizens’ rights and the border in Ireland – before it will begin to discuss a future trade deal.

Predicting “the row of the summer”, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, has insisted Britain wants to “see everything packaged up together, and that’s what we’re going to do”, and has also said the UK could “walk away” if confronted with the €100bn settlement the EU is said to be considering.

The government, while promising it would make a “generous offer”, could also be headed for conflict with the EU27 over the rights of the 3.5 million EU nationals who have made their lives in the UK and the 1.2 million Britons settled on the continent.

In detailed position papers published last month, the EU said it expected the European court of justice to have full jurisdiction over any citizens’ rights disputes, and the European commission to be able to monitor UK compliance. Neither stipulation will be acceptable to Brexit hardliners.

There is a widespread belief in EU capitals that Britain has underestimated both the complexity of the coming negotiations and the determination among member states to ensure that the bloc’s overriding priority must be preserving the full integrity of its single market.

“London has used some quite strong language and it does sometimes seem to be advancing the view that the 27 are planning to punish it,” said one southern European diplomat. “You could be forgiven if you think maybe it is getting ready to blame Europe for the breakdown of the talks.”

Several diplomats said the atmosphere and progress of the initial meetings would be critical. “There just has to be some signal that some concessions can be made,” said the Benelux diplomat. “The concern now is that instead it will be, ‘This is what we want, and this is what we must get.’”

A government weakened by a smaller – or smaller than expected – majority could leave Britain’s Brexit negotiators “in a difficult place”, the diplomat added. “It could mean they wind up having to persuade their own ministers and also the parliament on every compromise they make”.

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