Election Watch: Britain's election increases 'hard Brexit' risks

Contrary to media claims that Britain’s hung parliament improves the chances for retaining much of the status quo in terms of the country’s relationship with the European Union, A2 finds that it instead empowers British regional interests who will resist easy compromises.

Polls apart

Opinion pollsters and pundits had another poor night at Britain’s snap 8 June general election. Most – though not all – had predicted a comfortable majority for the ruling Conservative party. What transpired was that although the Tories won 2.7 million more votes than they had in 2015, they lost their majority in the House of Commons due to the vicissitudes of Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, which rewards regional strength over national support.

The outcome was largely attributable to the opposition Labour party successfully defending seats in the north of England that last year voted to leave the E.U., luring an unexpected amount of voters away from the U.K. Independence Party (Ukip), a single-issue movement that, as A2 forecast the day after Britain voted to leave the E.U. last year, is now moribund. At the same time, Labour picked up seats in the pro-Remain south of England. It also benefited from the election being called during university term-time, costing the Conservatives ‘safe’ seats such as Canterbury.

This result was a symbolic, though not technical, victory for left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his approach to Brexit. In terms of its substance, Labour’s approach has been very similar to the Tories’, committing to leaving both the E.U. and its attendant single market, but in terms of tone has been much softer and more conciliatory towards voters with a pro-E.U. sensibility. It is very likely that the incoming Tory-led government will likewise soften its rhetoric towards the E.U., given that stoking such hostility failed to deliver a clear electoral mandate, even from former Ukip voters.

However, it is a mistake to assume that this softer rhetoric will translate into a ‘softer Brexit’, whereby the British remain effectively within the ambit of E.U. institutions and jurisprudence. Prime Minister Theresa May is now a much-diminished figure who lacks the personalised landslide mandate the election was designed to deliver her, and who is now very much in thrall to legislators in the House of Commons. This vastly reduces her ability to compromise with negotiators in the E.U. over the terms of Brexit.

Fishermen’s Friends

A case in point is the E.U.’s Common Fisheries Policy, or CFP. One interesting facet of the election result was that just as the Conservatives were losing seats elsewhere, they made impressive gains in Scotland, from where they had been frozen out for 20 years. The U.K. media attributed this success to the charisma of the Tories’ leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson. Yet some Tory gains were clearly despite Davidson, rather than because of her.

North-east Scotland, for example, is the centre of the British fishing industry. Under the CFP, it was forced to open its fisheries to other European fleets, with locals blaming this competition for a pronounced decline in the sector. There is credible evidence to suggest that, when the Conservative government of the early 1970s negotiated Britain’s entry into the E.U. (or EEC, as it then was), it deemed Scotland’s fishing industry to be an ‘expendable’ loss for the broader benefits of E.U. membership.

In the post-Brexit arena, parties in north-eastern Scotland have vied to persuade voters that they will renounce the CFP, even though that much increases the chances of a ‘hard Brexit’ and the imposition of trade tariffs, as opposed by Davidson (see our special report from May). It is therefore likely the Tory resurgence in north-eastern Scotland was at least partly because voters believed the Conservatives were intending to pursue a ‘hard Brexit’, against the wishes of the Scottish party leadership. The rival Scottish National Party (SNP) was split on the issue, weakening its appeal.

Had the Conservatives won a resounding majority, many members of the English party would have been tempted to once again sacrifice Scotland’s fisheries in favour of a ‘soft Brexit’ deal to preserve economic access to the E.U. market, such as passporting for London’s valuable financial services sector. That is now off the table. Assuming that the Conservatives manage to patch up a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which won ten seats, they will have the support of 327 members of a 650-strong House of Commons.

In practice, the parliament’s membership is only 639, because it will be boycotted by the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin’s seven members and the speaker and his three deputies do not vote. Nevertheless, the margins are so tight that were the Tories’ new Scottish legislators to vote against the government over the CFP’s continuation under Brexit, it would be defeated.

This makes U.K. withdrawal from the CFP highly probable, which in turn is likely to generate a highly adverse reaction among the U.K.’s negotiating partners. Roughly one-third of the E.U.’s entire catch is drawn from British coastal waters, and the industry has estimated that loss of access would cost thousands of fishing jobs. Furthermore, fishing groups from nine E.U. member-states, including Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Spain, which has the largest fishing fleet in the union, formed an alliance representing 18,000 European fishermen to put pressure on the negotiating parties ahead of the Brexit negotiations.

France’s new president, Emanuel Macron, visited the French fishing port of Lorient in early June where he was interrogated by French fishermen concerned that they would lose access to the fisheries within the U.K.’s exclusive economic zone.

Denmark’s government said in April that the country had historic claims on U.K. waters dating back to the medieval period and that it was prepared to press these at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Although fishermen are few in absolute numbers, they are a vocal and sometimes militant force, particularly in France. Disruption, blockades and protests are likely at French fishing ports for the duration of the 2017-19 Brexit negotiations.

Irish troubles

The government’s potential reliance on the DUP is also a risk. All sides agree that maintaining an invisible, near-frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – an E.U. member state – is a critical objective of the Brexit talks. One possibility would have been to move the effective customs border back to the British mainland, securing a uniquely ‘soft’ Brexit for the northern six counties of Ireland, which have a Protestant majority of mostly Scots heritage that is opposed, sometimes militantly, to Republican aspirations for a united Ireland ruled from Dublin.

The DUP, which supports Brexit, is the foremost political exponent of this unionist mindset, and it is likely to reject the north’s effective incorporation into the Republic’s customs zone. By the same token the Republic, although its economy and trade are densely intertwined with those of the United Kingdom, is likely to reject any special status that could be seen as loosening its membership of the European Union.

As A2 noted last year, immediately after the Brexit referendum, the risk of a full-scale return to sectarian violence is low. The global context has changed out of all recognition since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, most significantly by the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001. The pre-9/11 adage that ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ is rarely heard in the 21st century, with governments across the Northern Hemisphere condemning non-state armed groups of almost any complexion.

Further reducing the risk of violence is the large financial sum the DUP will extract from the Conservatives as the price of its support, a windfall that will be welcomed across Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide. Of knottier concern is the current suspension of Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly, amid an argument between the DUP and Sinn Féin, which share power, over cost overruns in a green energy scheme. It is quite possible that the financial windfall the DUP exacts from London will help resolve this and other disputes between the unionists and nationalists.

Election upsides

The election has been interpreted by the British media as a self-inflicted disaster for the Conservatives and their leader Theresa May, whose bungling campaign saw her poll support fall dramatically in the weeks before the snap election. The consensus is that the result has much weakened her hand in negotiations with the European Union over the terms of Brexit. However, it is possible to descry some upsides for the British government.

The results in Scotland have forestalled any likelihood of a second referendum on Scottish independence before 2022, a possibility that was every bit as destabilising as Brexit itself. The separatist SNP is still the largest party in Scotland, but it lost many seats at the general election, including that of former leader Alex Salmond, who was a leading voice agitating for a second independence referendum. His departure from the scene, and the party’s poor night overall, reduces pressure on SNP chief Nicola Sturgeon, who leads Scotland’s devolved assembly, to prioritise an ‘indyref 2’, the threat of which caused even some nationalist voters to turn against the SNP.

The Tory revival in Scotland allows the party to credibly claim that it represents Scotland as much as anywhere else in Britain, which was…