Senior figures in Europe have spent the last few days pondering how Theresa May’s bungled election gamble will affect the upcoming Brexit negotiations. To the surprise of many, May, who campaigned to remain in the EU, had apparently set the UK on course for a hard Brexit, which involved leaving the single market behind. There was also the famous line that: ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’. Now though, May’s botched election leaves a question mark over her Brexit strategy. These shifting political sands have not gone unnoticed on the continent, where politicians and bureaucrats are sharpening their pencils ahead of the start of Brexit negotiations.
Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung today reports that the European Commission views the humbling of Theresa May as a sign that most Brits do not share her desire for a ‘hard exit’ from the EU. Indeed, the European Commissioner, Günther Oettinger, is quoted in the newspaper as saying that it may now be possible to discuss ‘closer relations’ between the UK and the EU than Theresa May has originally planned. He suggests that, if the UK were to adopt a similar arrangement to Turkey and remain within the customs union, the government would not be required to renegotiate all of its trading arrangements.
It seems this view is shared in Berlin. FAS has also spoken to senior German lawmaker and ally of Angela Merkel, Gunther Krichbaum, who believes that British voters have expressed their opposition to Theresa May’s planned ‘confrontation with the EU’. Krichbaum calls for an ‘opening up’ of the UK’s negotiation position and proposes membership of the customs union or even the European Free Trade Area, two options which he says would be in both Britain’s and Germany’s interest.
Nevertheless, in remarks which will rile Brexiteers within the Conservative Party and beyond, the CDU politician warns that this type of tariff-free access to the single market is only possible if Britain recognises the free movement of people.
This is perhaps why Nigel Farage now finds himself considering a return to the Ukip leadership. But with the Ukip fox now well and truly shot, one wonders whether he will succeed in influencing the debate. Europe’s politicians are now more hopeful that he – and others pushing for a ‘hard Brexit’ – won’t.