As news of the shock humbling of Theresa May’s Conservative party in the British general election sinks in across Europe, questions are being asked Friday about what the result means for Brexit, as the process of the U.K. leaving the European Union has become known.
Some commentators and politicians are suggesting that the Brexit—which is supposed to take effect in January 2019—could be softened, delayed, or even entirely derailed by the election result.
Indeed, preventing the timetable from slipping is a key part of Theresa May’s argument as to why she should stay in power.
The imminent start of Brexit negotiations, May says, is the reason why she should not stand down as Tory leader.
May is said to have agreed to form a coalition with a small Northern Irish party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
May deliberately framed the election as a vote on Brexit, at one stage going so far as to write on her Facebook page: “The cold hard fact is that if I lose just six seats I will lose this election, and Jeremy Corbyn will be sitting down to negotiate with the presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors of Europe.”
Corbyn, the hard-left Labour party leader, said in the course of the campaign that while he would respect the outcome of the referendum, he wanted the U.K. to remain inside the single market.
Given that the EU has said that it is not possible for the U.K. to remain inside the single market without also agreeing to freedom of movement—a key red line for many voters, as well as May, whose pledge to bring back control of U.K. borders is a key part of her Brexit plans—it is not clear how that particular circle can be squared, even by the magic of Corbyn.
Corbyn also pledged to unequivocally confirm the right of 3.5 million EU nationals who have settled in the U.K. to stay.
But many are suggesting that the election sounds the death knell for the uncompromising “hard” Brexit vision of that May appeared to be peddling.
Indeed, in the early hours of Friday morning, Brexit secretary David Davis suggested the election result could prompt a rethink of their strategy.
Questioned about the Tory’s manifesto pledges on the single market and customs union, he said: “That’s what it [the election] was about, that’s what we put in front of the people. We’ll see tomorrow whether they’ve accepted that or not. That will be their decision.”
One articulate expression of the hopes of defeated Remainers came from the lips of the Green Party’s only successful candidate, Caroline Lucas, who said that she hoped “progressives” “could and would work together” to avoid the “extreme” Brexit that Theresa May wanted.
Across Europe, the official position of politicians and technocrats is simple: This is an internal British matter. Britain is the one who has said it wants to leave the EU. If the country has changed its mind, the suggestion has been made, it only needs to put its cap in its hand and say so.
In the meantime, European politicians and technocrats appeared to be relishing the election result and using it to rub salt into Conservative wounds.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit representative, described the result in a tweet as “yet another own goal—after Cameron now May,” adding: “I thought Surrealism was a Belgian invention.”
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, tweeted: “We don’t know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end. Do your best to avoid a ‘no deal’ as result of ‘no negotiations.’”
The European Commission president, Jean Claude Juncker, said he feared it would not be easy for Theresa May to form a stable government.
“We are ready to start negotiations,” Juncker said, according to The Guardian. “I hope that the British will be able to form as soon as possible a stable government. I don’t think that things now have become easier but we are ready.”
Former Finnish Premier Alexander Stubb tweeted: “Looks like we might need a time-out in the Brexit negotiations. Time for everyone to regroup.”