If there was a moment when it was possible to speculate that the British election would send a clear signal about Britain’s relationship with Europe, it was short-lived. The British people may well deliver a decisive majority to Theresa May and, in the best-case scenario for her next government, she may be able to leverage that majority to win a good deal for Britain and to lay the foundations for Britain’s new role in Europe and at the global level. Even if that all came to pass, however, future historians would be hard-pressed to say those outcomes were a clear message from the British people. Britain’s relationship with Europe is at best peripheral to a contest that is much more about leadership style, domestic policy, and the complex web of security that surrounds terrorist violence. Leaving aside the peculiarities of the British electoral system, you could easily imagine this contest playing out in any one of a dozen different countries on the Continent. Britain is not having an election about Europe; it is having a very European election.
The British referendum on European Union (EU) membership was a dramatic event that has had a lasting impact on supporters from both sides. It would be a mistake, in that sense, to believe that the British people are indifferent either to the fact that they are leaving the EU or to the terms of their exit. Nevertheless, they have moved on with a broader conversation. Having decided to restore sovereignty to Westminster – which, as the May government explained in its white paper on Britain’s relationship with Europe, they always had even if sometimes it didn’t ‘feel’ that way – the British people are now debating what to do with their new freedom. What is striking is how little consensus there is about either process or priority. This has been good news for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party because it means that many of the issues he has written into his party’s program tracing back to the early 1980s are now fair game for debate. He may look old fashioned and yet his ideas are not irrelevant and have even attracted new attention. It has been bad news for May because her campaign team has proven inept at selling their own priorities. This has raised questions about May’s authoritarian leadership style and about her tendency to listen to only a handful of loyal advisors. ‘Strong and stable’ sounds less like taking advantage of new-found (or newly felt) autonomy than doing more of the same.
However this election turns out, the new government will have a busy agenda dealing with the varied and competing claims for public attention. That agenda is further complicated by the enormous challenges of dealing with radical extremism while promoting social integration. The British voters are less concerned with their country’s new relationship with Europe than they are with the relations they have among themselves. They are also alarmed by the declining state of public services and the need to find additional resources to protect the British people from those who would do them harm. The Article 50 talks that any future government will undertake are a distraction from this domestic agenda. They are necessary and inevitable but that does not make them centrally important – unless, of course, the negotiations go terribly wrong.
The situation in the rest of Europe is arguably no different. Where there are elections taking place elsewhere in the EU, negotiations about Britain’s future relationship are only marginal to the conversation. The question is whether this focus on domestic priorities in other countries will bind their leaders to rigid bargaining positions or whether relative popular indifference will give them added room for manoeuvre. Such questions cannot be answered before the fact. All we can say with any confidence is that in countries like France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, domestic politics is taking priority over conversations about Europe’s future – both with Britain and without it. Those countries are having very European elections as well.
There is nothing all that surprising about the triumph of domestic politics. Periods of ungovernability in Europe have always coincided with periods of ‘euro-sclerosis’. The difference this time is that Article 50 puts strict time constraints on how the conversation between Britain and the rest of the EU should unfold. Unfortunately, this means that the British do not have the luxury of European self-indulgence. They have to focus on their future relationship and they have to convince their European partners to give that relationship priority even if that takes attention away from more strictly domestic challenges. Given how the British elections have unfolded, it looks unlikely that the new government will be able to focus energy and attention on the process that the British referendum started. No clear signal is emerging and yet the consequences of this contest for Britain’s future in Europe could be profound.
Erik Jones, Director of European and Eurasian Studies and Professor of European Studies and International Political Economy, SAIS Johns Hopkins Europe