Will U.K. election strengthen May’s footing ahead of EU divorce talks?

The Yomiuri ShimbunShe may have taken a gamble designed to strengthen the foundations of her own administration ahead of negotiations over Britain’s departure from the European Union.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced her intention to bring forward a general election for the House of Commons, which had been scheduled for May 2020, to June 8 of this year. May aims to significantly increase the number of seats held by the ruling Conservative Party, which currently holds only a slim majority.

Since becoming prime minister in July 2016, May had stressed she would not dissolve Parliament for a snap election. May explained the reason for her change of opinion by saying, “If we do not hold a general election now ... the negotiations with the European Union will reach their most difficult stage in the run-up to the next scheduled election.”

At the end of March, the British government officially notified the European Union that it would leave the bloc. As reaching an agreement during the two-year period stipulated by the EU treaty will be difficult, there is growing awareness of the need to settle transition measures.

Free trade agreement talks that Britain is calling for will likely be pushed back to 2020 or later. May apparently made her election decision with such a work schedule in mind.

France will hold a presidential election in April and May, and Germany a parliamentary election in September. Substantive negotiations with the European Union that involve political decisions can take place only after that. The support rate for the Conservative Party is high, reflecting Britain’s steady economic situation. It seems May seized this moment as the right timing for an election.

Cost of ‘hard Brexit’ high

What is worrying is that if uncertainty drags on over the talks to leave the EU, it could negatively affect the global economy. Both Britain and the European Union must chart a course for the negotiations as soon as possible.

The main focus of the election is what relationship Britain should have with the European Union in the future.

The May administration has announced a plan for a “hard Brexit,” under which Britain gives priority to its own immigration controls and leaves the EU’s single market. If the Conservative Party wins the election, May would have a stronger footing from which to make this plan a reality.

The Labour Party, the largest opposition party, has been riven by infighting and is floundering. It opposes a “hard Brexit.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn agreed with bringing the election forward. This is because he has criticized May, who took office following the resignation of the previous prime minister, for not getting a mandate for her plan by holding an election.

If Britain withdraws from the single market, the costs for companies operating in Britain will rise, and it could hinder international cooperation in education, research and other fields. If Labour and other parties pick up votes and perform well in the election due to discontent with the May administration’s policy for splitting from the European Union, it is possible pressure could grow for a rethink of the course of action.

There also are concerns that holding this election could reignite the movement for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom. A regional political party that resents Brexit is demanding a referendum be held to determine whether Scotland should be independent.

To prevent a breakup of the United Kingdom, May must not forget efforts to overcome social divisions brought on by last year’s national referendum on EU membership.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 20, 2017)Speech


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