Sometimes there can be salvation in chaos. Britain’s inconclusive general election gives it the opportunity to revisit the terms of its future relationship with the EU. Brexit need not mean the violent rupture imagined by Theresa May’s government. A better outcome, though, will test the generosity and patience of Britain’s partners.
You could forgive the Europeans for being, well, unforgiving. Mrs May’s now-crippled administration was swaggering towards the formal opening of Brexit talks this month. The Brexiters were boasting that the nation was unshackling itself from a corpse. Armed with a fresh electoral mandate, Mrs May would put Brussels in its place.
In truth, eurozone nations have been on the up even as Britain has slid to the bottom of the European growth league. In Emmanuel Macron, France has a dynamic president committed to economic modernisation. Angela Merkel has seen off Germany’s populists and expects to win a fourth term. The Franco-German locomotive is being hauled out of the sidings.
Why should anybody help Britain dig itself out of a hole of its own making? Who could blame Ms Merkel if she decided Germany has more pressing priorities than bailing out the feckless Brits; or Mr Macron for savouring the sight of the rosbifs laid low by hubris.
Fair enough, but there are higher stakes here. Political paralysis in London has opened up a chance to derail the extreme Brexit promoted by Mrs May in favour of much closer association. It is also possible, albeit only just, to imagine that the entire Brexit enterprise could unravel. Either option would much better serve Europe’s as well as Britain’s strategic interest than the break-up hitherto in prospect.
Last year, British voters decided by a narrow margin to leave the EU. The same electorate has rebuffed Mrs May’s request for a clear mandate to negotiate her version of Brexit. The prime minister’s absurd threat to walk away if she did not get her way — “no deal is better than a bad deal” — is left with all the force of a playground boast.
It would be a mistake to say the Brits consciously reversed themselves in this week’s vote. Just as there were several strands to the referendum — immigration, austerity and globalisation loomed larger than the EU itself — so there are several explanations for the repudiation of Mrs May.
Partly, she was simply found out. A leader who promoted herself as strong and stable showed herself as anything but. The election was all about Brexit, she declared, then promptly refused to debate the options.
Even those of us who remain convinced that Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are a barmy leftover from 1970s socialism, must admit he fought an energetic campaign. Much in the manner of Bernie Sanders in the US Democratic primaries, he harnessed the resentments of the young and left-behind. If the Brexit vote showed the force of rightwing populism, Mr Corbyn demonstrated how the game is played from the left.
Yet if the motives of the voters were mixed — and there was evidence of a pro-European backlash against the Tories in London — the impact on Brexit negotiations will be profound. Mrs May could stagger on for some time as leader of a minority government, but she can no longer claim a mandate for her version of Brexit.
As far as Whitehall is concerned, the pledges to leave the single market and the customs union are inoperable — because the prime minister can no longer be sure they would win the support of the House of Commons.
Mr Corbyn has been calculatedly vague as to what Labour would accept, but clear in rejecting Mrs May’s prescription. The prime minister’s electoral humiliation has also tilted the balance within her own party. Pro-Europeans, who have been largely silent since the referendum, have a chance to make their voices heard in Downing Street.
Britain has lived with minority governments before, and Mrs May is promised the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party. But no such administration has faced the scale of the task presented by disengagement from the EU. Four decades of integration is not uneasily unwound.
The post-election political impasse denies the government an effective parliamentary majority for any Brexit legislation. All the while the prime minister will be negotiating in Brussels with partners who know she is a lame duck.
Mrs May has one chance left to redeem herself in the twilight of her premiership. She could seek a cross-party consensus on the terms of a soft Brexit that leaves Britain in the European Economic Area. She could then promise a second referendum on the terms of the deal. If she moves in that direction, Ms Merkel and Mr Macron should stand ready to help by stopping the clock on negotiations.
Yes, the Brits are maddening, but Europe is too important to miss the opportunity to keep them in.
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