In late October, the British Parliament supported the holding of early elections, scheduled for December 12. Observers agree that these elections will determine the fate of Brexit, which has recently been rescheduled again, to January 31 this time. The election agenda, the alignment of forces and options for the development of events are discussed by Lyudmila Babynina, Head of the Centre for Political Integration Studies at the RAS Institute of Europe.
It is a positive development that the British Parliament has agreed to hold the early elections, because previously, the House of Commons had no consensus on the critical issue of Brexit, and this unresolved question sabotaged its usual operations in all the other spheres. The pre-election campaign will last only five weeks, but it will be intense and harsh. Results are hard to predict. Opinion polls suggest that the Conservative party has the advantage, but due to the specific features of the country’s proportional representation system, these indicators are always slightly incorrect. Therefore, even if the Liberal Democrats or the Brexit Party enjoy a high degree of popularity, this will not necessarily guarantee them a significant number of seats in parliament.
In general, three outcomes are possible: a Conservative victory, a Labour Party victory, and a “suspended” parliament (if no party has an absolute majority and it’s necessary to form coalitions). Therefore, the fate of Brexit and UK-EU relations will depend on the election results and the membership of the parliament and government. If the Conservatives win or form a coalition with the Brexiteers, the withdrawal from the EU will be implemented as soon as possible. It is still difficult to imagine that Labour could win, but we cannot rule out this option either; even if they do not emerge as the party with the most seats following the election, they could head the government. In this case, the fate of the exit of the UK from the EU will be complicated, because their attitude towards it is twofold. On the one hand, they have not refused to implement it; on the other hand, they are discussing the possibility of holding a second referendum to verify public support for the agreement on the withdrawal process, as they are happy with neither Teresa May’s nor Boris Johnson’s version. The same is true concerning the coalition government: everything will depend on its membership. On this subject, we can now only make speculations.
As for the agreement, there is only a slight difference between these two versions: which is with respect to the Irish border issue. Brexit hinges on that critical issue: if there had been no difficulties in maintaining the peace process in Northern Ireland and implementing the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement), everything would be much simpler. Since all parties recognise that you cannot set up customs posts on the Irish border without threatening stability in the region, May and Johnson both sought out agreements that would try to resolve the problem of the Irish border’s openness, albeit in different ways. The current Prime Minister did something that his predecessor had not done – he agreed to transfer the customs border to the Irish Sea and leave Northern Ireland within the legal regulations of the single EU internal market. Under his deal, there will not be any borders on the island, but one region of the UK will have different legal regulations from the rest of the country.
The problem of Northern Ireland is tough to resolve since it is impossible to do three things simultaneously: to leave the EU, to do so with the whole of the UK, and leave the Irish border open. Since all negotiators want to leave the border open, there are few options to choose from. May have opted to support a customs union with Europe; Johnson chose different regulations for Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain. Judging by the recent vote, his version is more popular, but now there is no sense in talking about the matter in parliament, which has been dissolved. It is necessary to wait for the new parliament – only then will it be clear what it will vote for.