Democracy is a funny old thing, never short of surprises. Who would have thought four weeks ago that a potential Conservative landslide would turn into a hung parliament? Then again, who would have thought 12 months ago that presidents Trump and Macron would be preoccupied with Brexit?
For the UK, things have gone from bad to worse. If the aim of Prime Minister Theresa May was to strengthen her weak negotiating hand on Brexit, Thursday’s parliamentary elections did exactly the opposite — and then some. In politics, bluster can easily turn to whimper.
For the Remainers, the poll result leaves a glimmer of hope. At least a hard Brexit — a full detachment from the customs union and the single market — seems less likely. All talk about how “no deal is better than a bad deal” can now be thrown into the dustbin of misplaced soundbites.
European capitals are perplexed, but there is no reason for shadenfreude. The negotiations will be immensely complicated even without the political chaos in Westminster. The best thing to do in such a situation is to remain calm — take a deep breath and count to 10. The implications of Brexit on both sides of the channel will be significant. Rushing the process will make things worse.
Having said this, I am aware that the clock is ticking. The invocation of Article 50 means that Brexit should take place by the end of March 2019, a couple of months before European elections. It will be difficult to stop the clock when the negotiations have barely started.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is correct in saying that the EU is ready to begin whenever the UK is ready. The Union could take it a step further and call for a timeout. Will a coalition between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s rightwing Democratic Unionist party last? If we begin negotiations on 19 June, will we truly know who we are dealing with?
There is talk about a new election. What then? Yet another new negotiating mandate from a new government? Brexit was self-inflicted, we do not need to make things worse from the outside. Give the UK time to sort itself out. If Britain is ready, the EU will be ready.
It might be tempting to start the negotiations with technicalities, but that will be difficult before the big issues of jurisdiction, free movement and customs union are sorted out. Having negotiated EU agreements as a civil servant and a politician, I know from experience that it does not work.
As an avid anglophile I look at the last 12 months in dismay. Both the UK and the US are in the process of marginalising themselves from world politics. As a francophone I am hopeful; the election of Emmanuel Macron spells reform in a country that desperately needs it. As a Europeanist I see an opportunity to deepen integration and to take more responsibility both inside and outside the Union.
If this year has taught supporters of liberal democracy anything, it is that our system of governance is full of surprises and no matter how much we talk about stability, instability is often the norm rather than the exception. The good news is that at the end of the day democracy will find a solution, whether it means Brexit or not.