Snap Election in the United Kingdom – and Europe’s future
Finally Theresa May found out that the referendum did not unite the people, but only deepened divisions. What a surprise! Democracy means that the majorities prevail, but parliamentary democracy means that each decision has to be thoroughly debated and only then voted in parliament on the merits of the results of the debate. As Margaret Thatcher once said, referenda are the instrument of dictators and demagogues.
The higher democratic legitimacy lies with an elected parliament that has deliberating power and the duty to take all factors into account, and to serve the people as a whole. If the majority wins a vote, this vote can be revoked after the next election. A minority can become a majority another time. One could study in Northern Ireland what it means if a minority is constantly ignored without a chance to become a majority – it means trouble, and only a compromise made the Good Friday agreement possible. Minorities have no chance after referenda, because they cannot on a regular basis be repealed by another referendum.
Triggering Article 50 only on the basis of the (non-binding!) referendum would have been undemocratic. The Supreme Court saved Parliment from its own abdication. Voting on triggering Article 50 without having had a long parliamentary debate on the pros and cons was absolutely unparliamentary. The unelected House of Lords saved the honour of Parliament by having had a controversial debate. However the Upper Chamber did not exhaust its constitutional powers. The fact that the Lords are unelected weakened their position. But they did what is their role: to warn, to give counsel, and to propose rational amendments – while the Commons have had the last word and the decisive vote, but no debate worth of the big issue.
The reasons why the Prime Minister changed her mind and embarked on the path to elections may have been opportunistic, the chance to crush the political adversary was possibly too tempting. But another aspect is important: it is a chance to reinstate Parliament into its rightful place as the centre of decision for British politics. The voters will aks the candidates for what they will stand. The parties will publish their manifestos. Whatever the outcome, parliamentary democracy will be strengthened and the result of the referendum will no longer be the only point of reference for the lawmakers. Certainly it will remain a political factor – as every opinion poll is a political factor not to be ignored by politicians – but the debate should start again on what is really in the best interest of Britain. That interest has definitely not been debated after the referendum of 2016. Parliament must live up to its responsibilities.
The Prime Minister made her announcement as if there were no new rules on a fixed-term parliament. These are not the classical „snap elections“ – they are no longer legal. She had to go to Parliament to find a two thirds majority for new elections. So the Parliament did snap, not the Prime Minister. However there was a huge majority for new elections.
The LibDems hope to win back some of the seats they lost at the elections of 2015, punishing them for letting down their voters during the coalition. The SNP will see it as a chance to reconfirm their ambitions for Scottish independence, and Labour is divided as ever since Jeremy Corbyn took over as leader of an un-opposing opposition. Labour is in a real dilemma. The chances to be crushed are real. On the other hand only an election can give Parliament new vigour – either Labour and the LibDems join forces at least to oppose the hard Brexit, or the result brings down the second experiment of a militants movement in Labour, that attracts members but deters voters.
It is right to go to the ballot box now. The British government needs a new start. With or without Theresa May – the voters will decide. But the new Parliament must start a debate on defining British interests on a more rational foundation than the extremist prejudices of the hard Brexiteers. If the people elect the most nasty Tories ever into Parliament, they cannot complain about the consequences – and Theresa May may not be happy with a victory. If the people elect the most ideological Corbynites into the Labour seats, they cannot complain about the consequences – and Jeremy Corbyn may be happy with a defeat and hang on. The LibDems could be an alternative although they were disappointing in the coalition between 2010-2015. But the voters can at least try to vote for sensible, progressive Tory candidates, for unideological, realist Labour candidates, or more promising candidates from other parties, wherever such candidates are avialable.
It will be important that the young people go voting this time. It is their chances that are thrown away by Brexit. It is important that in Northern Ireland it is crystal clear that it will be a vote on having a hard border with the Republic of Ireland or not. In Wales and Cornwall it must be clear that EU subsidies will be finished and nothing will replace it, and the lie that the NHS would profit from Brexit must be exposed.
There will be nothing, no eating of the Boris-cake and no keeping of it, you only get Boris – no cake! The money is not coming and the nurses from the continent are leaving. However who wants to get rid of the financial services of the City of London, should vote for the hard Brexiteers – the jobs will leave, the fat cats will stay and wait for more tax privileges.
I am in favour of elections because it is the only chance to win back legitimacy for parliamentary democracy. I am not too optimistic as far as the result is concerned, because the sobering effects of Brexit will only come very slowly.
What do the elections mean for the forthcoming negotiations between the United Kingdom and the EU ? – Not much ! – I do not expect a revocation of Brexit in any case. If this is not happening, negotiations go on. If – as polls predict – Theresa May continues to be the Prime Minister, she may have a stronger hand inside Britain, but certainly not in Brussels. The sticky problems of the cost of the divorce cannot be elected away. If the Tories get a huge majority they may become even more assertive and grand-standing: the best way to loose the good-will needed in the negotiations. The first step is the separation of goods and liabilities. This is always complicated and could become nasty, because the behaviour of the main Brexiteers is not confidence-building.
But then comes the positive part of building a new relationship. The EU will also change in the coming years. There will possibly more options than we have today for relations inside the EU as well as towards third countries. However one thing is clear: there will be a very close link between give and take, cherry-picking will no longer be an option for anybody. The remaining member states will be very careful not to give any privileges linked to membership to any outsider.
But I think there are enough possibilities left for better relations. The EU has no interest at all in a ruined and divided UK. As long as this is home-made, there is little the EU can do about it. However the EU should become more flexible in relations to third parties. It is necessary towards Turkey which just threw away the last chance for full EU membership, flexibility could be useful towards Britain. We should try to make the best offer linking concessions to the degree of cooperation with the EU.
But have no illusions: it would be self-destructive for the EU to let Britain rule into it from the outside. The UK chose to leave the table where EU decisions are made. If the link chosen by the UK is weaker than that of Norway, Iceland or Switzerland, the relation cannot at the same time be as strong as with these countries.
The best would be if the British Parliament decides to have strong links to the EU as Norway has – and make clear to the people that the demagogic propaganda about EU immigrants was what it is: a big lie. But I fear the courage to do that may not be there – the Angst for the nasty press will be bigger. But we should now offer Britain the closest POSSIBLE relationship, keeping doors open for more – hoping that by the time we can widen the scope of the possible.
Now we wait for the French elections. If Le Pen wins, the whole negotiation may change, because then the EU as we know it – the guarantor of peace and prosperity, pooling sovereignty for the common good, will loose its main foundation. Brexiteers will be full of joy, but the economic slump which then may hit all of Europe will not leave out the British Isles. If Melenchon wins, the desaster for France will be the same.
In the world of Trump and Putin, Erdogan and Assad, Europe may become be the victim of its own folly. To be foolish is an option for each new generation. We know that very well from the Germans who in 1933 elected the Nazis into power – irreversably, because the nationalists who supported him ended up being his puppets or out of power. The dictator loved to speak of the power of the people – but the people had no more choice after that fatal one in 1933.
It seems that a new fascist wave is coming up. Poland and Hungary have regimes that would not have been accepted into the EU when they were still candidates. Greece’s far-left/far-right coalition would also not have been accepted. The EU is not too well prepared to effectively suspend the governments who become a threat to democracy. If one dictator helps the other, there will be no majorities for that. Then the only way is leaving this Union and found a new one with the remaining democracies. This lack of self-defence may be more dangerous for the EU than any financial crisis or Brexit.