There is a point during any divorce at which both sides simply want it to be over and the wisest decision is to stop arguing, accept the situation as imperfect and move on. That’s where European leaders are today as they observe the results of the UK’s landmark general election.
In Brussels at the European Council, the mood is one of relief: finally, some closure, the leaders’ tired faces — they stayed up late to discuss climate change and the next EU budget — seem to say. Of course, these declarations are tinged with regret: if Boris Johnson’s Brexit proceeds as planned, as it’s now almost certain to, the UK will leave the EU by 31 January. Which would make this EU summit, at which no British envoy was present, the last one to feature the UK as a member state.
But it’s time for clarity: Europe is exhausted of Brexit, and at this point any result ending the gridlock is welcomed — even if that result is a clownish politician subtly driving a digger through a literal “gridlock” wall. As Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar told reporters at the summit last night, any clear win for either party is a win for all sides, because it avoids the Brexit impasse that a hung parliament would have brought.
“The best thing for Ireland, for the UK and for Europe would be an end to the uncertainty, whether that’s Prime Minister Johnson winning with a large majority, or Remain parties winning a majority, we’ll work with whatever the outcome is,” Varadkar declared on Thursday night. “What has been very hard to work with was a hung parliament that wasn’t able to come to a majority decision on anything. I just hope we’re not in that position tomorrow.”
Can you imagine the level of exhaustion required for Varadkar, who has hardly disguised his concerns regarding a hard Brexit, to declare: “Whatever, just be done with it?” This is “take the house, the kids, the dog, I don’t care anymore” territory. This is how weary Brussels is.
Emmanuel Macron, who once excoriated Johnson and other Brexiteers as “liars”, diplomatically congratulated the Prime Minister on the Conservatives’ victory and spoke of “a moment of clarity”. Clarity means the UK parliament finally passing a Brexit deal and opening negotiations on a new trading relationship, as many within the EU have been quick to emphasise. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU Commission, warned that time was “extremely short” to achieve a new trading deal by Johnson’s deadline of December 2020.
Thierry Breton, France’s new commissioner, said he expects the EU to enter a “post-Brexit phase” by February. “The Brexit negotiations are over now. We are entering a new phase of trade talks between Britain and the EU,” he told French radio. Brexit, he added, is now “certain”.
His short-lived predecessor as French commissioner candidate, MEP Nathalie Loiseau, was blunter regarding what the UK should expect as the Brexit talks move to trade. “Michel Barnier said that trade with the British would include zero tax and zero quota on the condition that there is no dumping,” she warned, adding that she didn’t believe London would become “Singapore-on-Thames” (or rather, that the EU wouldn’t allow it). Europe, she warned “will protect the interests of its companies”. Macron emphasised that while he wants the EU to have the “closest possible relationship” with the UK, it will become a “competitor” state.
But for now, Brussels can relax: it’s almost certain Johnson will pass his deal and that the national parliaments of EU member states will ratify it too. There have been some laments from European sources about the fractured state of the British nation — whatever Johnson thinks, achieving 43.6 per cent of the vote does not constitute a “people’s government”.
Within the EU institutions, there is no more love for Johnson than there was yesterday (Donald Tusk, the former president of the EU Council, even told British voters to vote tactically). But EU leaders respect the concessions Johnson has made to reach a Brexit deal and will now be grateful that he has secured a majority to pass it.
Germany’s Angela Merkel has praised his “resounding victory”; the Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš has said he is a “charismatic leader” with a “strong mandate to deliver Brexit”; Spain’s Pedro Sánchez has tweeted that he looks forward to seeking “the closest possible future relationship between the EU and the UK”.
Christmas might be fraught on the British side, with the election outcome starkly dividing families, but in Brussels, the Conservative majority has brought much-needed peace of mind. For a few weeks at least, all is calm, all is bright. A true Christmas miracle.