Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
The corridors and coffee bars of the European Parliament have been buzzing with speculation for weeks about what the election might mean for the future of the European Union and Brexit.
However, it was the occupant of the Elysee Palace, not 10 Downing Street, who was being discussed over the croissants and cappuccinos until Theresa May made her surprise announcement of a General Election on 8th June.
The Prime Minister’s move caught officials here, and I suspect in many EU27 capitals, on the back foot. Hence the insistence by European Commission first Vice-President Frans Timmermans a few days later that the election changed nothing. He was trying to settle nerves.
But make no mistake, May has altered the atmosphere in the run up to the start of negotiations over Britain’s departure from the EU in ways that I believe can benefit both sides.
A clear Conservative victory on 8th June will remove any doubt that the UK is going to honour the outcome of the referendum, something still questioned by a minority in the EU, an organisation which has a history of responding to unwelcome votes by simply telling the public to try again. That, in turn, removes the temptation for EU negotiators to take a hard line in talks in the belief it may prompt the British Government to change its mind.
Angela Merkel’s CDU party colleague, and chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, Norbert Rottgen has acknowledged as much, noting: “For the first time the Prime Minister is programmatically committing the Tories to Brexit.”
Consequently, the intensely political decision to call an early election could help de-politicise the forthcoming talks and optimise the chances of striking a deal that works for people in the UK and across the EU.
By acting so decisively, May has deepened the respect in which she is already held in Brussels. Politicians here are well aware that currently a dozen or so MPs acting with the Opposition can cause the Prime Minister trouble in the Commons. They also recognise that both sides have to enter the negotiations able to make decisions without constantly consulting Westminster, in the Prime Minister’s case, and 27 national capitals if you are Michel Barnier. A clear election victory delivers that for May.
The need for a strong leader with a rock solid mandate to represent Britain’s interests has been highlighted by the predictable but frustrating leaks of the past few days, which prompted the Prime Minister to accuse some at the EU of attempting to interfere in the election. This is not a one-off. The EU will continue probing for areas of weakness over the next two years and we must be ready to respond firmly.
Meanwhile, domestically, a large Tory majority will further the process of reuniting our country and sideline the referendum result deniers.
So the General Election can be a huge positive for Brexit but we must not take the result for granted. Jeremy Corbyn would be a disaster for Britain and we need to work hard for every vote to deliver an increased Conservative majority.
And what about that other ballot which is occupying pundits in the Brussels bubble?
Unlike some, I am cautiously optimistic. If the polls are correct and Emmanuel Macron becomes President on Sunday, the Prime Minister’s decision in February to invite the then contender to meet her at Number 10 could prove a diplomatic masterstroke. It was his first major meeting with a foreign leader and much appreciated by Macron, who subsequently talked of defending “the special relationship between Great Britain and Europe.”
The Prime Minister’s understanding that such gestures matter could be key in the coming months.