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Hung UK parliament puts Brexit talks off balance

The hung Parliament produced by Britain’s election has added another dimension of uncertainty ahead of the first round of talks on the UK exiting the European Union.

world Updated: Jun 10, 2017 12:42 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
A protestor wearing a Theresa May mask is seen the day after Britain's election in London on June 9, 2017.
A protestor wearing a Theresa May mask is seen the day after Britain's election in London on June 9, 2017. (Reuters)

The first round for formal talks on Britain leaving the European Union are scheduled in Brussels on June 19 but the hung Parliament after Thursday’s election and the likelihood of a minority government in London has added another dimension of uncertainty to Brexit. 

The main reason Prime Minister Theresa May called the mid-term election was Brexit. She wanted a large mandate to “strengthen my hands” and overcome constant carping on the issue inside and outside her Conservative Party in Westminster about her version of Brexit.

May spoke at length about Brexit during the election campaign and previously, but given the ambiguity of what exactly it means, how it will happen and the implications for UK’s future, few are convinced, clamouring for more detail than has been forthcoming from her.

Questions about Brexit have invariably evinced these answers: “Brexit means Brexit”, “making a success of Brexit”, “no deal is better than a bad deal”, “back me to lead Brexit negotiations”, and “getting Brexit right is central to everything”. 

Some analysts believe the reduced seats for Conservatives and higher number of Labour MPs reflects a “revenge of the Remainers” – the 48% of Britons who voted to remain in the EU during the June 2016 referendum. 

At stake is May’s version of what is called “hard Brexit” - exiting the all-important European Single Market, the UK’s largest trading partner, exiting the customs union, and curbs on immigration from within the EU - the version that faces the same opposition which May wanted to overcome with a large mandate.

In contrast, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn wants the UK to retain membership of the single market, the customs union, and managed migration of EU citizens. He also wants to guarantee indefinite stay to millions of EU citizens already in the UK, while May wants to link their future to that off British nationals in EU countries. 

If May continues at the head of a minority government, she will not be able to pursue the same version in Brexit talks. Doubts have already been raised in London about how seriously EU negotiators will take a British prime minister who does not have a majority, let alone a large mandate.

Officials in Whitehall believe the complexity of Brexit has been largely ignored by the political establishment so far. EU rules and regulations have been deeply integrated in British law over the decades and govern almost every aspect of life in the UK – from environment to food to employment.