Can Brussels budge Britain? | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 19.04.2017
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Can Brussels budge Britain?

As the United Kingdom approaches a surprise snap election, observers wonder if and to what degree the European Union will influence the result when voters head back to the ballot box.

Some people who desperately hoped last year's Brexit vote was just a bad dream are looking at snap general elections June 8 as the day they could awaken to a different future: the chance for the United Kingdom to stay in Europe.  After British Prime Minister Theresa May's shock announcement Tuesday, the already existing hashtag signaling hope for an "EUref2" was invigorated with a debate over whether "GE2017" can serve that purpose.

Opposition party the Liberal Democrats or "Lib Dems," which has been the most vehemently anti-Brexit even after the referendum, is pushing that line of reasoning.

But others believe the vote is just a well-calculated politician maneuver by May to reinforce her mandate to decisively sever Britain's ties to the continent.

Carnegie Europe director Tomas Valasek admits he was instinctively in the "EUref2" camp when May made the shock announcement Tuesday. "My first thought was 'oh my God a heaven-sent second chance to perhaps run another referendum de facto," Valasek said, adding "but of course with a different result." However, he said he quickly realized that's not the case, even with the large degree of "buyers' remorse" felt among British voters over the decision to leave the union. "The notion that we're about to witness a 2nd chance [on #Brexit] is delusional," he said.

'Game over' already for Remain?

"The Lib Dems will benefit slightly but not enough," he believes. "Game over. I just don't see how anything changes between now and June 8."  The idea that EU leaders could help campaign for a pro-EU outcome, Valasek calls a "non-starter". "If there's one thing proud countries - of which Britain is certainly one of the proudest - are averse to it's being told by other to run their business," he said.

That was one of the reasons EU leaders tried to keep a low profile on the issue ahead of the Brexit vote, which didn't end up helping pro-Europe campaigners. So why wouldn't Brussels try another tactic this time, with less to lose?

Josef Janning, a Berlin-based senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues it would still be counter-productive for the EU to weigh in heavily. The decision to leave the EU didn't happen because Brussels sat it out, he reasons.  "It went south because there was a thorough misunderstanding in the United Kingdom about what it meant to be a member of the European Union, a misunderstanding which I see continuing today," Janning told DW. 

He doesn't view the general election as an "EUref2".  "I can understand why many people see it that way," Janning said, but doesn't think any optimism is justified because May has chosen her timing strategically, at a time she can reasonably presume she'll receive a fresh mandate. "The effects of Brexit don't bite yet. The opposition is weak," he explained. "The indications of public opinion polls are that they that they believe the majority still stands" for leaving the bloc.

A 'titanic' political error?

But Janning says even if she does stay in power, the price will be steep for May. He believes calling the election now was a "mistake of a similar proportion to [former Prime Minister David] Cameron's decision" to put Brexit to a referendum in the first place. "It will accelerate the disintegration of the United Kingdom," Janning predicts, deepening the gaps between England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  "It's like on the Titanic and they continue to dance until the whole room gets flooded. They will continue to talk about global Britain and how significant Britain's role in the world is to the last day of the existence of the United Kingdom."

Dare to do over

Stavros Papagianneas, a former European Commission official who is now a consultant urging the EU to communicate better, reads the tea leaves differently and wants Brussels to act boldly.

Papagianneas believes the EU should immediately launch an information campaign in all 28 member states "about the importance of the UK staying in the union and secondly about the importance of the union in general".  He doesn't think that should consist of high-ranking EU officials making pronouncements that could sound staged, but rather an effort undertaken at the regional and local levels.

Papagianneas believes now that British citizens know more about Brexit and its consequences, they like it less. The June 8 vote, Papagianneas says, "will be more than another statement on Brexit, it will be definitely a second referendum...and a rejection of the May government now in place will be a 'yes' vote to remain in the EU."

UK Kundgebung 'Unite for Europe' (picture-alliance/ Goodman)

Many people view the UK's general election scheduled for June 8 as a second chance to have a say on EU membership.

British Green politician Molly Cato Scott is a member of the European Parliament watching the developments in her home country carefully and with concern. She sides with those saying this is not another vote on Brexit, insisting it shouldn't be. She wants May to have to explain a lot of other policies if she's going to receive a renewed mandate with which to negotiate Britain's way out of the EU.

Scott thinks May's priority is to see "whether she can successfully distract people from the massive crisis we've got in public services and the real problems we've got with lack of public investment in the politics of austerity".

Whatever happens June 8, 2017 Scott promises there WILL be an "EUref2" but only after exit negotiations are completed, roughly two years from now, so the true terms of the EU exit can be made clear to the public. "Promises were made - and I know because I work in Brussels - those promises cannot be kept. Many of them have been abandoned already," she told DW. "If [people] don't think the deal is what they voted for then they should have the right to say they'd rather stay in the European Union."

She says the Green party and other like-minded politicians will fight for a true "second referendum" then.

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