Brussels expects little change from new UK government
A British government led but not dominated by David Cameron’s Conservatives would probably mean business as usual for the UK's dealings in Brussels, concluded a panel of experts at an election de-briefing last Friday (7 May).
At the event, hosted by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), three experts gave their views on the potential implications of the UK election results – which brought a hung parliament – on Britain's position within the EU.
On Friday evening (7 May), it emerged that no party had won a majority and thus no-one had the automatic right to govern. Although the Conservatives won the most seats, gaining more than 90 from Labour, a coalition or minority government will have to be formed based on the outcome of ongoing cross-party negotiations (see 'Background').
Tim Bale, a lecturer at Sussex University and expert on the Conservatives, said that although the election result and absence of a majority government is bad news for the UK, it may well be positive for the EU as it means there cannot be a ''heavily Eurosceptic Tory government''.
Bale did not rule out the possibility of a Labour-Liberal Democrat deal if talks between David Cameron and Nick Clegg do not bear fruit this week. He is sceptical about the progress that could be made in a Conservative-Liberal Democrat partnership owing to some fundamental policy differences.
David Rennie, the head of the Economist's Brussels bureau, pointed out that the Conservative party leadership is undoubtedly anti-EU – referring to Cameron's threat to hold a referendum on the now-ratified Lisbon Treaty – but that a Tory-led government would ''have too much on its plate'' and be ''too busy trying to fix the economy'' to pick fights with the EU.
However, he believes that events could bring UK-EU tensions come to the fore, speculating that another bail-out of an EU country could lead to genuine ''confrontation''. Britain, which is watching the Greece bail-out from the sidelines, would surely be unable to sit back and show no solidarity at all if the same were to happen with Portugal or Spain, he said.
David Healey, senior advisor at Burston-Marsteller and a former European Parliament deputy secretary-general, stressed just how Eurosceptic the current Conservative party is by pointing out that only three Tory MPs voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty.
However, he believes that a Conservative-led government would probably adopt exactly the same approach towards Brussels as previous UK governments – pursue national interests with efficiency and seek results – and predicted that it could be very much ''business as usual'' for UK-EU relations.
As of Monday evening (10 May), the form of the new UK government remains unclear. Negotiations between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have entered a third day, while Labour are waiting in the wings, ready to talk to Nick Clegg's party should those talks break down.
Tim Bale believes that any deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would bring the resignation of Gordon Brown.
The UK held a general election on 6 May, which was expected to bring the curtain down on 13 years of rule by the Labour Party.
Incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who succeeded Tony Blair in 2007, began the campaign as the underdog. With Brown's popularity ratings having been low for much of his tenure, observers had predicted an easy win for David Cameron's Conservative Party.
Yet with the Liberal Democrats having conducted an impressive campaign - with leader Nick Clegg depicting himself as a fresh-faced, honest alternative (EurActiv 16/04/10) - the Conservatives were no longer seen as certain to secure a clear majority.
When the results came in, it emerged that no party had won, meaning that the UK has its first hung parliament since 1974. The Conservatives are the largest party, but fell short of the 326 seats needed to form a majority government. Labour lost over 90 seats, while the Liberal Democrats failed to make gains.
Cross-party talks are now ongoing as attempts are made to form a government. The Conservatives are discussing a power-sharing deal with the Liberal Democrats, yet Brown has offered Clegg talks on a Labour-led minority government if no agreement is reached.
Tim Bale, senior lecturer at Sussex University and expert on the Conservative Party since the era of Margaret Thatcher, said that the result of the elections left the UK ''in about as big a mess as it could possibly be''.
He said that although the British electorate had ''tired of Labour'', it showed that it is not fully confident in a Conservative alternative. He also said that the Liberal Democrats' rise had become a ''collapsed soufflé'' and that many voters decided to stay with either Labour or the Conservatives.
Bale cautioned that although an agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats may be reached, ''it is one thing to form a government – a very different thing to run one'.'
David Rennie, head of the Economist's Brussels bureau, described the election as ''sulky, sullen and unhappy,'' saying that we are seeing a period of ''recessionary low-trust politics'' in Britain.
He said Europe had ''hardly existed'' in the election campaign and that the UK's role in the EU is simply not an issue in the forefront of people's minds compared with domestic issues. Although anti-EU sentiment is rife in Britain, UK-EU misunderstandings work both ways, he added.
David Healey, senior advisor at communications firm Burston-Marsteller and a former deputy secretary-general of the European Parliament, said that it was important to acknowledge that the current circumstances are unusual: ''the internal market is under threat, the euro is in trouble, the economic and financial crisis…''
He said that reciprocal messages for ''practical cooperation'' are needed between London and Brussels and that ''Brit-bashing in Brussels'' needs to stop.
In an interview with EurActiv Germany, Richard Lamig, secretary of the European Movement UK, said that a Conservative-led British government would mean ''a very different starting point for Britain's future European policy''. Practical action may not arise straight away, but as time passes ''the demand for tougher action might grow,'' he added.
On Euroscepticism in the UK, Lamig believes that ''the British people do not yet understand that their interests are more closely aligned with those of the people in other European countries more than they have been in the recent past'' and that the British media can report false facts about EU affairs because ''they can get away with it''.
He does not think that Cameron, if prime minister, will leave the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR) in the European Parliament. ''They do not care about influence in the European Parliament – this is why they wanted to leave the EPP in the first place,'' he stated.