Welcome to Messy Europe, Britain

The U.K.’s stable political system once made the coalition governments of the continent look incompetent. But those days are done.

<> on May 6, 2015 in Glasgow, Scotland.
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - MAY 06: Polling station assistant Ross Clement loads ballot boxes at New Parliament House onto vans for delivery to the 145 polling stations across the city on May 6, 2015 in Edinburgh, Scotland.With less than 24 hours until the polls open politicians campaign across the country in the final push for votes. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict what kind of government will emerge after Britain’s May 7 general election. The election campaign, which began on March 30 with the formal dissolution of Parliament, has felt excruciatingly long. And it has proved rather inconclusive: Despite dozens of stump speeches, hundreds of TV advertisements, and spirited debates in the media, voter intentions have barely shifted. The two main parties, the Conservative and the opposition Labour, are still head to head — exactly where they were at the beginning of this electoral marathon.

As things stand, however, two outcomes are all but certain. First, swing voters will decide the final result of this election. Second, neither of the two main parties will have a large enough majority to be able to govern without any external support or in a coalition. Gone are the days when the new government, empowered by a strong popular mandate, could start working the day after the vote.

Welcome to Europe, Britain.

Despite Euroskepticism being one of the dominant themes in this election cycle, the vote on May 7 will actually bring Britain closer to the rest of Europe by doing away with the British “exceptionalist” notion that the U.K. electoral system can only generate stable governments with stable majorities. Over the last five years, the outgoing government, a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, has been regarded as the exception rather than the rule. Now it’s clear that it’s the new reality.

Britons have applied the same kind of “exceptional” thinking to the disruptive, populist, monothematic parties and movements that are so common in the so-called continental Europe — the Northern League and the Five Star movement in Italy, the National Front in France, Podemos in Spain, and Syriza in Greece. The British political establishment used to think that its system could absorb extremism and populism into a mainstream, moderate agenda. The precipitous rise of the U.K. Independence Party and the Scottish National Party prove that this is no longer the case. Britain is now following the path of other European countries in recent elections. New parties and protest movements have eroded the electoral base of long-standing parties, in both government and opposition, and in some cases have pushed them aside.

There’s an irony in this election that’s causing Britain’s political system to look more like those of the rest of the continent. Europe has been the elephant in the room throughout this campaign, and how London will engage with the European Union will remain a difficult issue for whatever government the new Parliament will support. But this is an issue — perhaps because it generates so much animosity — that has the potential to drive innovative thinking and interesting discussion.

As things stand, a Conservative-led government will try to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and then call a referendum on these terms by the end of 2017. Given the aversion toward Brussels among many segments of the British electorate, a referendum on Britain’s EU membership will be highly disruptive and likely to bring the country close to leaving the European Union.

A Labour-led government, on the other hand, will remove the rather daunting prospect of a referendum on EU membership, but it will not be able to duck the question of how much sovereignty Britain is willing to surrender to Brussels. Many of the signature policies outlined in Labour’s electoral manifesto — on the National Health Service, immigration, utilities price caps — potentially clash with key EU policy areas. For instance, Labour’s proposal to prevent workers from other EU member states from claiming welfare benefits for at least two years could put London in conflict with the principle of free movement of people within Europe’s single market.

Britain’s new government — regardless of who is in charge — will have to carefully balance its relationship with Brussels while also making policies that are acceptable to Britain’s increasingly Euroskeptic public and fending off the attacks of the Euroskeptic media. It will also have to manage its relationship with the other EU member states that are increasingly disfranchised and uncomfortable with what is perceived as the “British” attitude toward Europe. In many EU countries these days, Britain is regarded as more and more idiosyncratic and less and less an indispensable counterweight to Germany and France.

There is a tangible risk that Britain and the rest of the EU member states will develop a serious mutual misunderstanding, with the former being perceived as difficult and too insular and the latter being deemed too willing to accommodate Brussels’s demands even in spite of their own national interests. But this misunderstanding is partly due to the fact that the British public and politicians are now discussing — admittedly in a messy way — issues that other countries prefer to keep quiet. These are questions such as the role of national sovereignty vis-à-vis a supranational framework like the EU and also the role of different regional or national components within a sovereign state, as in the case of Scotland in the United Kingdom or Catalonia in Spain. These debates have been playing out in the electoral campaign over important questions like how an elected government should balance fairness and efficiency. In other words, is it right to tax more, and risk creating negative incentives, in order to improve public services and the welfare state?

Perhaps no one is forced to grapple with these questions more than the Labour Party. Labour’s attempt to reconcile a liberal market-oriented approach to economic policy with the need to correct stark inequalities of income, wealth, and opportunity brings a new and refreshing dimension to the economic policy debate. The Conservative Party, in turn, is addressing another set of difficult questions: Is the institutional framework and the governance of the European Union still up to the tasks for which it was designed? Should it be changed to meet the challenges of an increasingly integrated and connected world?

These questions would open up a fresh and balanced debate in Britain, especially if they could be brought together in one overarching question: Has the process of European integration reached its limit?

This is a hard question to ask, but a necessary one. The only other option is continuing to kick the can down the road in fear of disrupting the European project. The new European-style non-majority British government may be the one to ask this question, and even help extend the debate to the rest of Europe.

Photo credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

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