PARIS — Across Europe, the unexpected results of Britain’s snap election immediately called into question the future of the negotiations over the British exit from the European Union.
With Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to secure an absolute majority in Parliament — and thus the strong mandate polls had predicted she would win — European officials quickly began speculating whether Brexit could now be delayed and how the impending negotiations would be affected.
“Brexit negotiations should start when UK is ready; timetable and EU positions are clear,” said Michel Barnier, the E.U.’s principal Brexit negotiator, in a tweet early Friday. “Let’s put our minds together on striking a deal.”
Meanwhile, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, in a letter of congratulations to May, who remains, for the moment, Britain’s prime minister, reiterated the need to move quickly on Brexit talks before the March 2019 deadline. “The timeframe set by Article 50 of the Treaty leaves us with no time to lose,” Tusk wrote.
Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which outlines the E.U.’s constitutional basis, is the provision by which member states can withdraw from the union. Once triggered, member states have two years to work out an exit deal with Brussels. May triggered Article 50 in late March, the first time the provision has ever been used in the E.U.’s history.
Earlier Friday, Tusk also urged Britain not to let its current political landscape impede its ability to make a deal on its way out the door. “Do your best to avoid a ‘no deal’ as a result of ‘no negotiations,’ ” he wrote on Twitter.
But elsewhere in the E.U.’s political establishment, there were questions over whether Britain, newly submerged in political uncertainty, could now even engage with the complex negotiations that lie ahead.
“We need a government that can act,” said Günther Oettinger, speaking on Deutschlandfunk, a German public radio station, Friday morning. “With a weak negotiating partner, there’s the danger that the negotiations will turn out badly for both sides.”
“The clock is ticking for Brexit,” wrote Manfred Weber, a conservative member of the European Parliament, on Twitter. “Therefore the UK needs a government soon.”
Nearly a year after the Britain’s watershed referendum, when voters opted to leave the 27-state bloc, the long-awaited Brexit talks are still technically slated to begin June 19.
Given the magnitude of those discussions — and the lingering uncertainty as to what, exactly, Brexit will mean — May called the June 8 snap election as a means of strengthening her negotiating position beforehand.
“Every vote for me and my team on 8 June will strengthen my hand in those negotiations,” she said during the campaign.
But with just 10 days to go before the talks are due to start, May’s hand has been anything but strengthened.
With the loss of an absolute Conservative majority in Parliament, on Friday morning the only foreseeable way her party could form a governing coalition was in partnership with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, a faction deeply skeptical of the “hard Brexit” May and her Conservative allies have defended for months.
With considerable enthusiasm, some in Europe interpreted the election results as a decisive rejection of a hard Brexit by British voters.
The sentiment was perhaps most pronounced in Ireland, where the reality of a future Brexit has threatened to reignite strife over the future of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom but voted last year to stay in the European Union. A further complication is that May is likely to try to form a coalition government with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
“The results of the UK election indicate to me that there is no strong mandate to proceed with a hard Brexit, which represents an opportunity for Ireland,” Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Prime Minister-designate, said in a statement.
A similar line emerged in Germany. “The British citizens have shown that they don’t want to let themselves be played with,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters. “The message of the election is, have fair talks with the European Union and think again whether it’s actually a good thing for Great Britain to exit the European Union in this way.”
But others, particularly from a French perspective, were quick to point out that the results of Britain’s most recent election, however shocking, were not a rejection of Brexit in any substantive way.
“First, let’s not confuse these results with a new Brexit referendum — that’s already done,” said Pierre Moscovici, the current European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs and a former French finance minister, in an interview.
“It changes the force of the negotiations, to be sure.” he added. “The push for a ‘hard Brexit’ is weakened. But all is less clear — the political situation in Britain in general, the new minority government and its leadership.”
While many political analysts agreed that a hard Brexit, given the weakened position of Britain’s Conservative party, seemed less likely, some said it was too early to tell in which direction the negotiations would shift.
“The standard feeling at the moment is that it probably tilts the balance of power in the talks toward the E.U., given that the U.K. side is not going to be particularly well organized,” said Richard Youngs, a professor of international relations at the University of Warwick. “It would probably force the government away from the hard Brexit goals laid out during the campaign and the very confrontational line the prime minister has taken throughout.”
He added, though, that the election losses could leave May more beholden to the hard-line elements of the party.
For others, it was more a case of how much more turbulent Brexit would be, whenever the talks do finally begin.
“The big question is whether the story will end in a planned, organized way, with a deal that both sides can live with, or whether it ends chaotically with the U.K. falling out of Europe,” said Fabian Zuleeg, and economist and the chief executive of the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank. “Even though we know there will be Brexit, the nature of one versus the other is totally different.”
But for some E.U. lawmakers, the election results provoked little beside frustration over an inevitable reality — more delay.
“EU ready to negotiate since last year. UK not ready even now,” wrote Siegfried Muresan, a spokesman for the European People’s Party, the largest party in the E.U. parliament. “Start of negotiations can be delayed, end very hard to delay.”
Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.