Clock ticking for Theresa May as EU leaders stand firm on Brexit timetable

By on 12/06/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Jean-Claude Junker, President European Commission

As the UK comes to terms with the political chaos prompted by last week’s snap election, one pressing question is what shape Britain will be in to begin the imminent Brexit negotiations.

Talks on the UK’s departure from the EU are due to begin in one week’s time, on 19 June. But with last Thursday’s election having left Britain without a functioning government at the time of writing, its readiness for the crunch talks looks in some doubt.

European leaders remained respectfully tight-lipped on Conservative prime minister Theresa May’s failure to fulfil her aim of securing a larger majority to bolster her Brexit position, but left little room for doubt that they are keen to press on with the talks as scheduled.

In comments to a press conference in Mexico reported by the BBC, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU wanted to negotiate “quickly”. “We want to stick to the time plan, and so at this point I don’t think there is anything to suggest these negotiations cannot start as was agreed,” she said.

Meanwhile, in a letter to May to congratulate her on her reappointment as prime minister, European Council president Donald Tusk was similarly forthright on the Brexit process, saying there was “no time to lose” to make the most of the two-year window allowed under the Article 50 exit timetable.

“Our shared responsibility and urgent task now is to conduct the negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union in the best possible spirit, securing the least disruptive outcome for our citizens, businesses and countries after March 2019,” Tusk’s letter states.

May’s hope is that she will be able to quickly forge a partnership with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, whose 10 members of parliament would allow her to cobble together a working majority. At the time of writing, reports suggested a deal was expected by Tuesday this week.

But even if such an arrangement can be brokered, the UK’s starting position in the talks looks severely weakened, prompting some to question whether the timetable can stand. EU negotiators know that the PM could be ousted by her own MPs within days – she must first weather a crucial meeting tonight with the Tory parliamentary party’s ‘1922 committee’ – so any commitments she makes will be treated with caution.

Even if Tory MPs let her keep her job until an orderly leadership contest can be arranged, the government would struggle to get a deal through the Commons – where a handful of Europhile Tory rebels could ally with the opposition parties to block a settlement. As well as former ministers such as Ken Clarke and Nicky Morgan, this group now includes newly-elected Scottish Tory MPs; Ruth Davidson, the successful Scottish Conservative leader, has already made clear that she wants to see a Brexit deal that focuses on jobs and economic growth rather than immigration issues.

Amidst these uncertainties, analysts are arguing that Brexit talks will have to be delayed. In a paper published in the aftermath of last week’s election, John Springford and Simon Tilford, respectively director of research and deputy director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank, said that the likelihood of Brexit negotiations starting as planned was “all but impossible to see”.

“Britain has no government, no consensus on what kind of Brexit the country wants and no mandate to pursue it,” they wrote.

The government has already postponed the Queen’s Speech, in which the administration sets out its legislative programme for the year, from its planned date of 19 June. In briefings to journalists, it blamed the delay on the time taken for ink to dry on the ‘goatskin parchment’ paper that is traditionally used; but most commentators pointed instead at the time needed to finalise a deal with the DUP. The Queen had already postponed an event in order to free up 19 June, and plans to spend the rest of the week watching the horse racing at Ascott – so it is unclear when the Queen’s Speech can now be held.

Meanwhile Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive and chief economist at the European Policy Centre think-tank, said in a commentary that the “two-year clock is ticking” for Britain.

“The new, weakened UK government will need to define its negotiating position rather quickly and come to the table far more willing to compromise than has been the case for the last 11 months. If the uncertainty over the UK’s position and the government’s unwillingness to compromise prevail, the UK might still end up with no deal at all.”

Former Swedish prime minister and co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Carl Bildt, suggested on Twitter that the UK’s election result has simultaneously bolstered and undermined the prospects for a positive Brexit conclusion, writing: “May election failure has increased both chance of better Brexit outcome and risk of complete breakdown. A mess.”

Many factors will influence which of these outcomes come to pass. But one certainty for May now is that without the conclusive parliamentary majority she sought, she will have many more interests to balance when talks do open – greatly complicating what already looked like an unenviable position.

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See also:

UK election surprise leaves Brexit talks uncertain

About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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