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, a Conservative, failing 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.
“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, urged the British not to drag their feet for too long before coming back to the discussion table. “We don’t know when Brexit talks will start. We know when they must end,” he wrote on Twitter Friday, referring to the 2019 deadline. “Do your best to avoid a ‘no deal’ as a result of ‘no negotiations.’”
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 Friday morning. “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 had in those negotiations,” she said during the campaign.
But with just 11 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.
As Oettinger put it: “I expect more uncertainty now.”
Regardless of whether the Brexit negotiations would be delayed — as of Friday morning, no official postponement had been announced — there was a firm insistence in Europe that the surprising results of Thursday’s election should not change Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
“I am not sure that we should read the results of this vote as questioning in any way the position expressed sovereignly by the British on Brexit,” said French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, speaking on French radio.
Some E.U. lawmakers viewed the election results with little besides frustration, given what they considered the inevitable result of Brexit negotiations in any form.
“EU ready to negotiate since last year. UK not ready even now,” wrote Siegfried Mursean, a spokesman for the European People’s Party, the largest party in the E.U. parliament, on Friday. “Start of negotiations can be delayed, end very hard to delay.”