Looking back, 2016 was extraordinary year of political surprises. Many were hit by a double whammy: first in June, when the UK narrowly voted to leave the EU; then again in November, when Trump won the presidential election in the US, pulling off a second political shock of the year. 2017 was always shaping up to have the potential to be another unpredictable year, with elections foreseen in several EU countries, notably the Netherlands, France and Germany. But add to that a couple of unforeseen ones (UK and possibly still Italy) and this year might even pip 2016 to the post as far as surprises go. Whilst it’s too early to write the political review of 2017, two elements which will undoubtedly feature as highlights are French President Emmanuel Macron’s triumph and UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s tribulations. Both are significant and worth deeper assessment in their own right. This short article seeks to offer, in a nutshell, some ideas about what happened in each case, and what these outcomes mean for the EU and Brexit.
First up: Macron. The youthful, ambitious, former minister of a socialist government defied political gravity by becoming French President without having previously held elected office and without a preexisting party structure to support him. He ran an ostensibly pro-EU campaign, touting a new kind of politics – “neither left nor right”. He confounded his power base by routing the French establishment in subsequent legislative elections, where his one-year-old party won 308 of the 577 seats in the lower and more important chamber of the French parliament. His government – a mix of former left, right and liberal politicians as well as some newcomers to politics – now enjoys a parliamentary majority of 350 seats. What’s more, when you include his ally MoDem, there are possibly even more moderate centre-left and centre-right MPs likely to join the majority. This increases Macron’s chances of succeeding with his ambitious reform programme to modernise and restructure France and the French economy. This is important in of itself. But equally, Macron is looking to Europe – and particularly Germany – to help secure a new partnership and a more integrated EU. The basic pitch to German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to be: “I’ll help Germany by reforming France if Germany helps me reform the EU”. In the wake of Brexit and Trump, defaulting back to past alliances and reviving the Franco-German motor makes political sense in Paris and Berlin.
Next up: May. Much has been written already on the UK PM’s “humiliating victory”. She voluntarily chose to call an election in order to strengthen her majority and her negotiating hand on Brexit. That seemed a safe bet back in April when she had a 20+ percentage point lead in the polls. But when asked to choose on 8 June, the British people had other ideas. Despite remaining the biggest party and securing the largest percentage of the popular vote for the Tories since the early 1980s, the result was a hung parliament. This left Mrs May, her party and the entire country in a weaker and more uncertain position both politically and economically. Meanwhile, Labour and its leader Jeremy Corbyn have been widely credited with a more dynamic, energetic campaign than the Tories and the British public expected. They hugely mobilised young voters with messages of “hope… for the many”. Their manifesto, compared to the policy-lite Conservative one, offered a distinct alternative for voters. The collapse of the UKIP vote and significant gains in Scotland were not enough to counter the backlash May had created through a lacklustre campaign. Focusing on Brexit and personal attacks on Corbyn simply failed to resonate. In contrast Corbyn’s authenticity, combined with costed (albeit classic left wing, old Labour “tax-and-spend”) populist policy positions on the NHS and education, proved popular with many.
So what do these political successes and failures mean for Brexit? Well, as ever with Brexit, it’s difficult – and perhaps too early – to predict. Macron’s success busted a popular, EU-wide political myth – that it pays to bash Brussels. Macron admittedly received some support in the second round from citizens voting against Le Pen rather than for him. But his huge parliamentary mandate, although shaded by a strong abstention, must in part be seen as vindication of, and popular endorsement for, a more positive European future. His recent offer to May of the door “being open” [i.e. for Britain to change its mind and remain an EU member] appears noble at first glance, even if it has been largely ignored in UK political circles. It also has the advantage of offering Macron political cover should the Brexit negotiations go wrong and the UK walks “off the cliff” in a disorderly Brexit. Taken at face value, France, like the rest of the EU, wants a deal with the UK. But given the weak hand many believe the UK has in this negotiation, Macron may not consider it to be in France’s interest to be overly generous at the start, or even the end, of the process.
For Mrs May’s government, the top priority must be getting back to where she wanted to be in the first place: strong and stable leadership. A more collegial approach to government and to Brexit will perhaps facilitate a more orderly withdrawal and the passage through a now hung parliament of the necessary legislation to enact it. But it will come at a price. Some politicians and business leaders are hopeful that the consequence will be a softer Brexit. Talk of signing onto or borrowing ideas from “off-the-shelf” relationships with the EU such as those adopted through EEA/EFTA; and by Switzerland, Turkey and Canada, appears to have been reignited. Even so, the hung parliament also empowers the hard-line eurosceptics in the Tory party who will do their utmost to avoid any backsliding on a hard Brexit. And once Mrs May has worked out what her minority government’s negotiating position is, she has to convince the EU to buy it: no mean feat.