Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS
Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS

British Prime Minister Theresa May asked voters to be sensible and provide her with a solid mandate to negotiate a fair-minded Brexit. Despite handing her the largest proportion of the vote, they decided against that eminently sensible proposition. New French President Emmanuel Macron asked French voters to be sensible and vote for a centrist party in the face of popular nationalism. They decided in favour of that proposition, and massively reconfirmed it by granting his newly formed party a huge parliamentary majority.

Yet, despite the enormous differences in style and outcome, both elections demonstrate how quickly changes in direction and sentiment are now taking place in political systems once thought to be profoundly stable and predictable.

Before the Brexit vote, British voters worried that they were being harnessed to a losing concept. Troubles in Greece, the continued economic underperformance of southern European nations and, particularly, the way eastern European countries were drifting away from European norms, combined to marginally shift the British electorate towards Brexit.

How different the world looks now. Instead of magnifying the European dilemma, Brexit has seemingly strengthened the desire of huge voting blocs in important European countries to rededicate themselves to the project. The British, on the other hand, now look as if they have inflicted on themselves an intractable mess, and then made it worse by handing their chief negotiator an unstable, minority government from which to launch a tough set of negotiations.

Brexit negotiations are due to begin in days, but instead of a wobbly Europe negotiating with a "strong and stable" leader backed by a large parliamentary majority, there is now a legitimate question about whether Britain will be able to start the negotiations on time after negotiations between the Conservative Party and the Ulster unionists seem less than perfectly concluded.

It’s easy to get carried away by the drama of the moment, but it’s important to remember that this story is not yet complete. Look back further and it’s not impossible that things might change once again.

Fundamentally, British voters lost faith in the European project because keys flaws and shortcomings in the project began showing themselves. It’s not impossible that these strains will ultimately show themselves again. It’s worth noting that the average economic growth in the euro area was 20% lower than that in the UK over the past decade. In the context of such capricious and vacillating electorates, nothing can be ruled out.

What does this mean for countries not party to this fraught negotiating table? How have things changed?

In the context of such capricious electorates, nothing can be ruled out.

The ideal outcome for outsiders would be what is known in British parlance as a "soft Brexit". Europe’s trading partners – and in this case, that includes the UK — aren’t particularly fussed about issues of immigration that, obviously, don’t affect them. But they are concerned that the negotiations might weaken the economies on both sides of the table.

The key here is the maintenance of strong trade relations and a common market.

The new circumstances make that outcome on balance more likely. May will now have to square her concessions with the Democratic Unionist Party, a socially conservative, anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage, Eurosceptic party. For the gains of the centre in France, its interests are not to be accommodating to one of its economic rivals.

Some very tough negotiations just got tougher.

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