Brexit: It takes two to tango

In the UK we have been increasingly focused on what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ actually means. Every little hint, tit-bit or veiled message about Brexit from the Government is being scrutinised to within an inch of its life. But as we get lost in domestic policy minutiae, are we forgetting about the bigger picture? It will take two to tango in the Brexit negotiations and therefore we should not forget about the UK’s more experienced and heftier dancing partner.

The Prime Minister has confirmed that Article 50 will be triggered before the end of March 2017. Crucially this will be before both the French Presidential Election (April-May 2017) and the German General Election (October 2017). These two key political events were always going to be hugely influential but Brexit means that they now directly impact the UK and vice versa. The issues that fuelled a Brexit vote – migration and euroscepticism – are equally, if not more, prevalent on the continent.

Even before Brexit, it was obvious that migration was going to dominate both German and French elections. The Front National’s Marie Le Pen is now a serious contender for the presidency. The YouGov polling tracker in Germany showed that 66% of respondents do not agree with Merkel’s “we can do it” approach on migration. This translated into the success of the anti-immigration party - Alternative für Deutschland – who secured over 20% of the vote in recent regional elections. 

With migration and euroscepticism at the fore, both home and abroad, it is difficult to think of a time when the politics between European nations has been so entwined. Maybe this symbiosis is offering a significant diplomatic opportunity for Theresa May.

Invoking Article 50 before both German and French national elections will give Theresa May some much needed leverage in upcoming negotiations. Former President of the European council, Herman Van Rompuy, is well aware of this as he stated: “Before the German elections and before there is a new German government no serious negotiations will take place.”

Undoubtedly Francois Hollande and Merkel were hoping for Remain to win on June 23rd but not necessarily for the most obvious reasons. David Cameron had hoped that the EU’s consent to limit EU workers to in-work benefits for four years would have had lasting impact on EU referendum campaign. It didn’t. In fact this EU concession was a complete non-starter and its disappearance during the EU referendum campaign tells a story of its own.

If Remain had won, there was a chance that some variant of this suspension on benefits for EU migrants could have appeared in both Hollande and Merkel’s manifestoes. However, the EU referendum and domestic polling show that both Merkel and Hollande are going to have to dig a little deeper to tackle migration. So in the heat of a General Election campaign where both Chancellor and President are in the political fight of their lives, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a sudden and surprise policy on migration could come to the fore.

This may be exactly what Theresa May is banking on. If you have high profile, incumbent European statesman campaigning for some sort of border control, while also defending the virtues of the EU single market, this could allow the UK to replay quotes and arguments right back to the EU during Brexit renegotiations.

This strategy is not without its pitfalls. General Elections are showing a tendency for greater unpredictability and betting the house on the outcome above would be diplomatically naïve. Numerous political commentators during the EU referendum mentioned how a vote to leave the EU, may give Germany and France an incentive to stick the boot into the UK during their elections. This political school of thought still holds true despite the positive mood music from Europe since June 23rd. EU nations have struck a more conciliatory note than many would have expected. But this may have been more to do with avoiding market turmoil than about laying the ground for friendly negotiations. But this initial politeness is already starting to give way, with Slovakia’s Prime Minister stating Europe will make sure leaving the European Union is “very painful” for the UK. These comments should not be dismissed because Slovakia holds the EU presidency, with Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic also willing to veto any Brexit deal that looks to restrict their citizens’ rights to live and work in Britain.

So when Hollande and Merkel are looking to tackle the issue of immigration in their respective General Elections will they actually find themselves closer to the UK’s position?  In this diplomatic tango between the UK and EU, the triggering of Article 50 is just the first attempt by one of the dancers to make the other follow. But it could well be events on the continent that may decide who has taken the lead when the music stops.

Douglas McIlroy

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search