Why Europe isn't happy about our election result

Brussels takes Brexit seriously—but there's only so far they'll bend

May 08, 2015
Cameron is playing a dangerous game on his renegotiation. © Yves Logghe/AP/Press Association Images
Cameron is playing a dangerous game on his renegotiation. © Yves Logghe/AP/Press Association Images

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.

Read more on the election result:

The SNP has a hard road ahead

The demise of the big beasts

What Labour's next leader must do

Worse, Cameron’s narrow majority will leave him in hock to his unruly backbenchers, many of whom want Britain to leave the EU. Another coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats would have tempered the Tories’ anti-EU instincts. Instead, Cameron’s wafer-thin majority hangs on veteran EU-phobes such as Bill Cash, one of those who made life hell for John Major in the 1990s, and younger outists such as Andrew Rosindell. They will press Cameron to make impossible demands in his attempted renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership, bolstering their case for Brexit when he fails to deliver. But Cameron may feel obliged to go some away to appease them, as he did when he “vetoed” the fiscal-compact deal in December 2011 and promised a referendum on EU membership in January 2013. The upshot is that Cameron is likely to drive a harder bargain—and adopt a harsher tone—in his attempted renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership.

EU leaders don’t want Britain to leave: it would set a terrible precedent, reduce the EU’s clout in the world and accentuate Germany’s dominance. But there is only so far they are willing to go to keep Britain in. For instance, restrictions on welfare payments to new EU migrants may be achievable; limits on freedom of movement within the EU are not. There is no appetite for the arduous process of changing the EU Treaty, which would require achieving unanimity among 28 EU governments and winning parliamentary approval in each member state, with the added hurdle of a referendum in several countries. The election calendar is another big constraint: in 2017, the putative UK referendum year, there will also be a presidential election in France and a general election is also due by then in Germany.

Many in Europe will cheer the fact that Nigel Farage failed to win a seat and has resigned as leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party. But even that silver lining has a cloud attached to it: he may now focus more of his attention on Brussels, where he remains a member of the European Parliament.