Rosa BalfourSenior fellow in the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Not at all. The British government is likely to lose its way, but Britain will not get lost, and the rest of Europe should offer an olive branch just in case extraordinary events take place that might change the status quo. The EU is stronger with Britain, as a member or a very close partner. This should be the EU’s strategic interest.
In Britain, the June 8 general election has brought about confusion and uncertainty. This is healthy: British citizens have proved that an ideologically driven and slogan-full empty track of “Brexit means Brexit” is not what was asked for when Brits voted in June 2016 to leave the EU. Should the election lead to a parliament that is actively engaged in the pros and cons of Brexit, this will be healthy for British democracy and have positive repercussions on Europe, even if the negotiations are mired in uncertainty.
The final point regards Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary performance, against all expectations. It shows that whether one likes the Labour leader’s politics or not, alternative views are possible. This is an important demonstration that the politics of “there is no alternative” has a short wind. Politicians need to argue, engage, and deliver far more ideas to citizens.
Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and D. German distinguished visiting chair at Appalachian State University
As the Romans used to say, Errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum (“To err is human; to persist [in erring] is diabolical”). Yet, British Prime Minister Theresa May learned nothing from her predecessor David Cameron’s defeat in the UK’s June 2016 referendum on EU membership, showing among other things an unrivaled amount of arrogance.
Yet, something cannot really be lost unless it was owned before. Was Britain ever really part of the EU? British politicians never fully accepted the fact that they were Europeans, too.
As May perseveres in negotiating Brexit, UK politicians will realize what they were part of and what they are about to lose. Hence, before a deal is signed, it is likely that someone will oust May on a promise to change her policy, will renege on the negotiations, and will finally make Britain a part of the EU.
Erik BrattbergDirector of the Europe Program and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
While Germany is still going strong and France is surging, Britain is drifting on the European and international stage. Rather than solidifying British Prime Minister Theresa May’s position, the June 8 general election weakened her hand both at home and vis-à-vis Brussels in the Brexit negotiations due to start on June 19.
But ironically, this outcome could serve as an impetus for a more constructive UK approach on Brexit—although there are no signs of Downing Street reaching this conclusion yet. The longer the UK continues to build its castle in the sky, the greater the damage to its own standing. The naive prospect that Britain could be a global island, striking free-trade agreements with Commonwealth states and emerging powers, is turning out to be quite a fantasy. Meanwhile, the notion that London could simply pivot to Washington is also unrealistic under the unpredictable and protectionist U.S. President Donald Trump.
Given the EU’s unlikeliness to cede any major compromises, London has few choices but to switch track to pursue some version of a softer Brexit. If so, there is still a chance for Britain to continue to play a leading role in European and international affairs. Amid the tough Brexit negotiations that will consume British politics for the next two years, London’s best bet is to cut its losses with the EU and move on.
Elmar BrokMember of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs
A country like the UK will never fail; it is too strong. Nonetheless, Britain has made a questionable decision, and only time will tell what it will bring. One thing is certain, though: the decision to leave the EU will be a challenge for both the EU and the UK.
However negative the aftermath of Brexit will be for both sides, the UK will depend more on a positive final deal—politically but also economically. The election in the UK on June 8 did not work out in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s favor but weakened her position and credibility substantially. It will be more difficult for May to negotiate compromises having lost a fair amount of support. This creates a lot of uncertainty for both parties due to start negotiating Brexit on June 19, and it can only be hoped that this uncertainty will not lead to a collapse of the talks.
Regardless of the difficulties the UK is facing internally, the EU is ready to start negotiations and will not change its strategy. The EU wants a deal with the UK that will ensure the interests of both sides, limit the damage, and provide for a good start to a renewed friendship. The EU is united as never before; Britain is not.
Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Asia Centre
You bet it is. This has to be the worst bunch of politicians in fifty years. There is a complete lack of leadership and vision for the UK. The ruling Conservatives are gripped in a constant power struggle, which will only worsen now that Prime Minister Theresa May is in a weakened position. There is zero thought for the long-term good of the country, only for how to achieve the keys to Number 10 Downing Street. The one silver lining is that after May’s failed presidential-style election campaign, there may be a return to cabinet government—even though half the members of cabinet are plotting to stick knives into each other.
Having to rely on the votes of Northern Ireland’s ten-strong Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is another sign of how Britain has lost its way. The Good Friday Agreement was predicated on London showing an even hand to the main constituencies in Northern Ireland. Now, by depending on the hardline DUP, the government is placing the peace process in jeopardy.
There is also no majority in the UK parliament for any sensible policy on Brexit: no majority to stay in the single market, and no majority to leave. The opposition Labour Party is all over the place on Brexit. A shambles would be a nice way of describing the current political situation in the UK.
Denis MacShaneSenior adviser at Avisa Partners
Political, economic, and foreign policy instability in Britain is closer to that in the French Fourth Republic or some shaky Latin American state than what the UK knew under prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, or even David Cameron.
The UK’s June 8 election was a rejection of Brexit, especially in London, but Prime Minister Theresa May’s response is to form a coalition with the most anti-European, openly homophobic, sectarian party in the House of Commons.
Inflation is now at 2.9 percent as a result of the devaluation of the pound that followed the Brexit vote. Growth is visibly shrinking. It is hard to see where Britain has influence in European or world affairs. The foreign secretary’s twenty-five-year campaign of deriding and mocking Europe has left him with no friends. U.S. President Donald Trump has put off a state visit as even he can see it is not worth coming to Britain in its present lamentable state.
In the space of twelve months, Britain has become the sick man of Europe. The question is whether the UK has just lost it temporarily or given up as a major power.
James RogersDirector of the Global Britain Program at the Henry Jackson Society
From my window at the top of Millbank Tower, with the awesome size and energy of London beneath me, Britain does not look very lost. Prime Minister Theresa May’s inability to gain a parliamentary majority in the June 8 election certainly gives ammunition to those who think the UK is in decline. Yet she gained more votes than any Conservative leader since 1983, and both the main parties—the Conservatives and Labour—are coming round to support a similar kind of Brexit. And let us not forget that 85 percent of votes cast went to parties that support leaving the EU, or that the separatists in Scotland were rolled back, reducing the chances of another referendum on Scottish independence. Unionism was the victor of the 2017 election.
Equally, let us remember that daily politics is not indicative of national well-being. The UK remains not only cohesive but also internationally influential, with a robust economy, a growing population, an expansive culture, and a strong military. Later in June, for example, the Royal Navy will begin trials with HMS Queen Elizabeth, an 80,000-ton behemoth—the most powerful aircraft carrier outside the U.S. Navy. Soon, this vessel will help protect Europe’s maritime communication lines as well as project British influence around the world.
Ulrich SpeckSenior research fellow at the Brussels Office of the Elcano Royal Institute
Britain, as a midsize power, cannot go it alone in an increasingly interconnected world. But as an island with a glorious, imperialist past, the country is always tempted to overestimate its role and leverage. Brexit is driven partly by xenophobia, partly by a nostalgic vision of the UK as a global power.
As long as the political elites nurture those fantasies instead of providing a reality check on them, Britain will be heading toward a hard Brexit, which would massively damage Britain’s economy and throw it into isolation.
There is no alternative out there for Britain: the country’s only reasonable path ahead is as part of European networks and coalitions. Alone, it is too weak, and the United States is not interested in a close alliance; U.S. President Donald Trump cares only for narrowly defined American national interests. And Asia and other prospering regions are much more interested in relations with the EU and its economic powerhouse, Germany, than in a Britain that degrades itself by leaving the single market.
Britain would be lost if it broke with the EU. But to stay in the single market, leaders need to start to educate the public about British interests, instead of surfing on a wave of nationalism and feeding a delusion of grandeur.
Stephen SzaboNonresident fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University
Britain is certainly adrift but not lost. It now faces a period of prolonged political instability with a minority government and total confusion over where it is headed—both in terms of leadership and in regard to Brexit and the country’s larger international role.
However, the news is not all bad. The decline of the pro-independence Scottish National Party and the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) is a sign of a reconsolidation of the party system and of Scotland’s role in the UK. The Tories’ weakened position and their dependence on the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland may keep the UK more in than out of the EU and prevent the country from completely opting out of Europe.
Britain has been granted the opportunity of a rethink and modification of its hard Brexit line, and this will be in the interest of an economy that will otherwise face a downward spiral. In short, Britain has the opportunity for a reverse Dunkirk, returning to rather than exiting Europe.
Ben TonraProfessor of international relations at the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin
Notwithstanding the extent and depth of the UK’s current self-inflicted misfortunes, it would be wrong to write Britain off as irredeemably lost.
At least two paths exist: continuing pursuit of the hard Brexit for which UK Prime Minister Theresa May unsuccessfully sought a stronger mandate, and seeking a softer variant that might result from a more consensual, cross-party approach. In either case, the UK will be missing in action from the heart of Europe. It is, however, in all Europeans’ interests to try to ensure that a trail of political breadcrumbs is left that will allow the UK to maintain a strong and potentially unique relationship with the EU. At the same time, this must not be allowed to violate the union’s core interests or compromise the balance of obligations and privileges that define membership.
The exit process outlined in Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union should not be parked, delayed, or extended. The 27 remaining EU member states cannot be held hostage to the febrile and potentially toxic political machinations at Westminster. The UK has made a determined choice that must be respected. Meanwhile, whatever structures the two sides agree on to define a unique a deep bilateral relationship can also offer a route map of return—a return that may have to await the next political generation.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
If Britain looks lost, the blame has to be put on the Brexit decision, which now more than ever can be seen for what it is: a costly mistake that risks leading to economic decline and diplomatic isolation.
The UK’s June 8 electoral result did not fundamentally change the broad picture. It only accelerated what was there for all to see. Brexit may be what a majority of British people want, but it comes too late. Britain’s decision is to a large extent out of sync with the global economy and the new emerging geopolitics. Moreover, it sounds out of tune with the recent upsurge in Europe for reform and progress. A few months ago, Brexit supporters had high hopes of Britain becoming a beacon for skeptics across Europe. Now, this illusion is gone.
There will be no backtracking. Last week’s election did not record any change of mind by voters on the decision to leave the EU, and this must be recognized. So how can Britain limit the damage? By clarifying its Brexit strategy, which means dropping the hard Brexit utopia and settling for more realistic arrangements with the EU. For the new UK government, this is the test, which will be closely watched by all other member states.