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The U.K.'s stunning election may screw up Brexit

The U.K.’s stunning election may screw up Brexit

Theresa May’s disastrous election result Thursday could still let the Conservative leader hang on as U.K. prime minister. But with her party’s majority wiped out and power now dependent on a deal with an Irish political group, any chance of the U.K. being able to negotiate a hard Brexit with Brussels has vanished.

In the wake of the shock result, EU lawmakers have been quick to pounce on the chaos engulfing the U.K. political system, which one German lawmaker described as in “total disarray.” Another labelled May’s authority within the Conservative party as “broken,” adding that she was a “weak prime minister” and could well resign.

Having called the snap election in order to obtain a greater mandate to push through a tougher deal with the EU on departing the bloc, May now faces the prospect of having a majority of just a single seat in the new parliament as a result of a deal struck with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

While many have suggested that European leaders in Brussels will be rubbing their hands in glee at the result of the U.K. election, the truth is that lawmakers are eager to get the negotiations underway as soon as possible, and worry that any uncertainty in London will delay and complicate the process even further.

Belgian lawmaker Guy Verhoftstadt, the lead Brexit negotiator in the European Parliament, labelled the vote “yet another own goal” that will make “already complex negotiations even more complicated.” In a statement to the Associated Press, Verhofstadt quipped: “I thought surrealism was a Belgian invention.”

Verhoftstadt is not the only EU official to comment on the shock outcome of the U.K. election.  German lawmaker Markus Ferber, who is involved in discussions on access to EU markets for Britain’s financial sector, was scathing about May’s leadership. “The British political system is in total disarray. Instead of strong and stable leadership we witness chaos and uncertainty,” he said.

Another German lawmaker, MEP Elmar Brok, who is the Brexit representative for Angela Merkel’s faction in the European parliament, said: “Theresa May’s authority in her own party is broken. She has become a weak prime minister and negotiator. It is quite possible she will go.”

The EU’s budget commissioner Guenther Oettinger told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk: “We need a government that can act. With a weak negotiating partner, there’s a danger that the negotiations will turn out badly for both sides,” adding that he was unsure if Britain’s negotiations about leaving the bloc could begin on time.

The negotiations between the U.K. and the EU are due to begin in Brussels in 10 days time, but given the turmoil Whitehall now finds itself in following Thursday’s vote, the start date could be delayed.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier tweeted that talks “should start when UK is ready,” urging both sides to “put our minds together on striking a deal.”

European Council President Donald Tusk said he didn’t know when negotiations were going to start, but warned the U.K. to avoid a “no deal” scenario in the case of any failure to come to the negotiating table.

According to Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at London-based think tank the Centre for European Reform, there is an “enormous amount of uncertainty” now swirling around Brussels, but said that even before the election result, EU negotiators were already concerned about the U.K.’s lack of preparation.

“They were already worried that the U.K. was very underprepared for these negotiations. If we now have a level of uncertainty within the government as well, then that is liable to make things worse,” Bond told VICE News.

The lack of stability and narrow majority in parliament if May’s plan for a new government gets the green light also means that the chances of a hard Brexit are now much less certain. “The possibility of a hard Brexit is weakened or diminished because Theresa May was campaigning for a very tough negotiating line, which also said that no deal was better than a bad deal,” Zsolt Darvas, senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, told VICE News.

Darvas said that for those who wanted a softer Brexit negotiation, the election result was actually a positive. “The key issue is how closely the UK will remain to the single market and with this election, the prospect of staying closer increases because the prospect of a very hard Brexit is diminished.”

Among the key issues which will need to be considered during the negotiations is how to deal with the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, given that the latter will remain inside the EU.

That question has now become much more complex as a result of the deal the Conservatives have struck with the DUP, who will have a much more decisive voice in any negotiations about how the border will be implemented.

The DUP made it clear Friday that it doesn’t want Northern Ireland to have any special status post-Brexit within the U.K. The DUP is worried that by keeping one foot inside the EU — with a fluid border with the south — it would be seen as a step towards decoupling the country from the U.K.

“The DUP [will be] using every ounce of leverage that they have to get the Westminster government to do things they want to do, in terms of the border,” Bond said, pointing out that it is unclear from the DUP’s manifesto exactly what type of border it wants with the Republic.

Ireland’s prime minister-in-waiting Leo Varadkar said on Friday that May had “no strong mandate to proceed with a hard Brexit, which represents an opportunity for Ireland.”

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