Brussels takes Brexit seriously—but there's only so far they'll bendby Philippe Legrain / May 8, 2015 / Leave a comment
As David Cameron celebrates his surprise election victory, his European counterparts are dreading the prospect of two tumultuous years that could end with Britain leaving the European Union. EU leaders—not least Germany’s Angela Merkel—were already grappling with the threat of Grexit. Now they will have to deal with another set of tortuous negotiations, public spats and a referendum by the end of 2017 that could result in Brexit.
From the perspective of EU leaders, the UK election result is about as bad as it gets. Centre-left governments—notably, those in France, Italy, Sweden and Denmark—would have welcomed a Labour victory from both a social-democratic and an EU perspective. There is also no love lost between Cameron and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, after the UK prime minister mounted a vocal and bitterly personal campaign to try to block his appointment last year.
Centre-right leaders—such as Merkel in Germany, Mariano Rajoy in Spain, Ewa Kopacz in Poland and Pedro Passos Coelho in Portugal—have a political affinity for Cameron’s Conservatives. But they no longer have a partisan one, since Cameron pulled his party out of the European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament in 2009 and formed a rival one. Even in political terms, centre-right leaders would have felt comfortable with much of Labour’s agenda. Although they differ over the merits of austerity, continental Christian Democrats’ belief in a corporatist, social-market economy has much in common with Ed Miliband’s interventionism. But above all, EU leaders wanted to avoid the aggravation and uncertainty of dealing with Cameron’s renegotiation demands and the subsequent referendum.