What today’s UK election means for Britain and Europe

Another momentous vote.
Another momentous vote.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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Today’s election in the UK hasn’t inspired the same international frenzy as the French or Dutch elections—or even the Brexit vote. That’s not particularly surprising as for a long time, conventional wisdom dictates that prime minister Theresa May will win a majority in parliament and crush her political rivals, giving May a strong mandate to negotiate Brexit.

The election has, however, gone off-script. And there are actually a few very important things that today’s vote will determine.

The UK’s next government—no, really

In the last stretch of the campaign, May’s enormous lead evaporated. In fact, according to one shocking poll, the Conservatives’ 20-point lead has narrowed to one point. Another poll suggested May could lose her majority in Parliament—a prospect that sent the pound tumbling. (The final poll gives the Tories a 12-point lead.)

The victor of this election will have to deal with a messy divorce out of one union (the EU), whilst keeping one much closer to home intact (the UK). It is possible—still very, very unlikely but possible—that Jeremy Corbyn, an old-style socialist who currently leads the Labour Party, could become prime minister tomorrow as part of a coalition government. The odds of a Labour majority, which no poll predicts, were only 4 to 1 with a few days to go.

Even a hung parliament—where no party has a clear majority—would have huge implications for the future of Britain. All these options were deemed impossible when May called the election.

The fate of Brexit 

If May fails to win a majority in parliament, it would spark chaos in the UK and Europe.

Such a scenario would force political parties to work together to form a government. A minority Labour government would need the backing of other parties to pass legislation; it would be deeply unstable. A coalition would open up an opportunity for smaller left-wing parties looking to tame Brexit—or Scotland to get another referendum on independence in exchange for Corbyn getting power.

Inside the EU, there’s growing fatigue among the bloc around Brexit. With the EU limping from crisis to crisis, many are keen to focus on more pressing issues. The remaining 27 members of the EU would “cautiously welcome Theresa May having a larger majority,” John Springford, policy director of research at Centre for European Reform, tells Quartz. “It means they have someone with a strong personal mandate to negotiate with and any agreement that they put together is less likely to fall apart.”

May would give them a lasting Brexit deal and the opportunity to finally walk away from Britain. While the EU-27 would welcome a British government more receptive of the bloc, Springford points out that in the end, it’s still within the blocs interest for “the person they’re negotiating with to be relatively, politically secure.”

A hung parliament will no doubt leave the UK in a much worse negotiating position. A coalition government could see another referendum on Brexit down the road—or even the slim possibly that the UK tries to withdraw Article 50, the process that kicked off the nation’s official departure from the EU, and take the whole thing back.

The future of the left

 in Europe

Corbyn’s campaign has surprised political pundits and members of his own party. The Labour leader overcome low expectations to run a relatively successful campaign; the polls show his policies are resonating with many voters. The challenge for Corbyn is to translate the growing momentum—driven largely by young voters—to the polls today.

If Corbyn loses the election, there will be fresh calls for him to stand down as leader of the Labour Party. A good showing will make that harder to achieve, meaning that centrists will not be able take the party back to successful days of Tony Blair, who won three elections in a row.

If Corbyn does quit, or even if he refuses to resign, the party will likely spend months consumed by internal squabbles as it decides on what to do next. It could prove to be the catalyst some Labour members need to organize a devastating split.

The election comes at a time when the left in Europe seems to be slowly dying. In France, the Socialist Party lost a bruising presidential election to centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist, whose party is now set to wipe out the Socialists in the upcoming parliamentary elections. In Germany, the left challenge to incumbent Angela Merkel has already fizzled months before the presidential election.

Corbyn will either end up challenging this trend, or be one more domino to fall.

Saving the union

The future leader of Britain will have to fight on several fronts to keep the UK intact. The results of the referendum last June highlighted a deep divide among countries inside the UK: England and Wales voted to leave the EU, while Scotland and Northern Ireland chose to remain. Brexit gave nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland a historic opportunity to kickstart their own campaign to leave the UK.

The Scottish National Party has vowed to hold a second referendum on independence (just three years since the last) to fight back against a so-called “hard Brexit.” If May wins the election and pushes ahead with plans to pull Britain out of the EU’s single market, she may end up pushing Scotland towards independence.

For now, polls suggest the “no” campaign would once again beat the “yes” camp, but that could quickly change if Brexit negotiations unravel.

The British union is also under threat in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein, the Republican party that wants to reunify Ireland, called for a referendum on a united Ireland as soon as the Brexit result was announced. At the heart of the issue is the Irish border. The border was once the flash point for decades of violence between nationalists who wanted Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland and those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the UK. A peace process ended the violence and created a soft border, which Brexit throws in jeopardy.

May wants to take Britain out of the single market and negotiate a new customs agreement. But the prime minister has yet to provide answers to how the soft-border can remain if the republic of Ireland remains within the EU and Northern Ireland is taken out. Failure to provide an adequate solution could add to calls to hold a poll on Irish reunification.

The criteria for Northern Ireland to have a referendum on Irish reunification is clear. There can be a border poll if there’s a shift in public opinion, and Sinn Fein has argued that now is the time. With the EU hinting it could allow a united Ireland to swiftly join the bloc, the momentum is behind the nationalists.