On Monday, May 11, 2015, The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosted a readout from the U.K. elections, featuring a discussion on the election’s domestic and foreign policy implications. The event was moderated by Dr. Daniela Schwarzer, Senior Director for Research and Director of the Europe Program at GMF. The panelists included Sir Michael Leigh, GMF Senior Advisor; Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, Senior Transatlantic Fellow and Director of the GMF Paris Office; Michal Baranowski, Director of the GMF Warsaw Office; and Andrew Small, GMF Transatlantic Fellow.
Dr. Schwarzer opened the panel by noting the magnitude of the elections with the immediate debate on the credibility of the representative nature of the U.K. electoral system. Sir Michael Leigh noted the surprise nature of the conservative victory and the unreliability of public opinion polls. He stated that the Tories’ success was due to their campaign strategy of focusing on limited themes that held resonance with the electorate, such as the economy. In regards to the EU, Sir Michael noted that David Cameron’s re-election could be interpreted as the best possible electoral outcome, as Cameron is not a eurosceptic and can negotiate a reform package with the EU to present to the populace to ease anti-EU sentiment before the 2017 U.K. EU membership referendum. The EU partners have vested symbolic and real interests in keeping the U.K. in the EU but “not at any price.” For example, Mr. Baranowski noted that Poland is not willing to negotiate on the free movement of people within the EU, as many poles live and work within the U.K. David Cameron must also contend with the growing eurosceptic sentiment with many new Tory MPs and should avoid setting “red lines” for the referendum in the coming days after his election. The 2017 referendum is a major gamble, as it is two years away and is difficult to predict the outcome. A “no” vote would have major domestic and foreign implications.
Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer noted that the U.K. and the EU have a symbiotic relationship whereby they reinforce one another’s global position and security. A U.K. exit from the EU (or “Brexit”) would have major implications for the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). She held that a CSDP without the U.K. would be a shadow of its former self in terms of capacity, meaning, and influence, a notion shared by Mr. Baranowski. The alternate scenario, Ms. de Hoop Scheffer noted, is that without the U.K., CSDP would progress faster as the absence of the U.K. would force further French and German cooperation. Ms. de Hoop Scheffer stated that she believes the U.K. is integral to the CDSP and that the tenuous special relationship between the U.S. and U.K. would be damaged by a Brexit. She concluded by quoting Churchill, “the true measure of nations is what they can do when they are tired,” words that resonate throughout the transatlantic alliance.
In regards to the U.K., Mr. Baranowski stated that Poland desires an outward looking U.K. within the EU. There is a concern in Poland over the increasing focus on domestic issue in the U.K., as the U.K. has been integral in the EU at recognizing the threat of Russia, dealing with the Ukraine crisis, and the single market. Speaking about U.K. foreign policy, Mr. Small stated that a return of a U.K. that punches above its weight in foreign policy is unlikely due to the continuing defense cuts. Moreover, he reiterated the notion of a drift in the special U.S.-U.K. relationship, as the U.K.’s mercantilist foreign policy with commercially motivated policy has compounded the drift. He pointed to the U.K.’s move to join the Asian Infrastructure and Investment, a sensible decision that was done against the common line of solidarity as the U.K. raced to be the first western partner. He held that U.K. foreign policy is not subject to much domestic pressure and was not a part of the election and surrounding debates. Further, he stated that the Brexit debate is driven by the elite and not the public.
A lively question-and-answer period followed the discussion. The roundtable event was well attended by participants from the DC policy community.