In April, British Prime Minister Theresa May decided to call a snap election, even though she had promised not to. Under British law, a political party (in this case, the Conservatives headed by May) can call an election ahead of the end of their terms. May's stated reason for the vote was to gain a clear mandate which would strengthen her bargaining position when she negotiated the UK's departure from the European Union, or "Brexit." Her real reason was likely that she wanted to strengthen her own position, and that of the Conservative Party, by picking up additional seats in Parliament.
Britain held its election yesterday, and she failed on both counts. When the votes came in, Parliament was divided (or "hung") with no single party holding the majority of seats. That fact will affect the Brexit negotiations a lot. It's hard to predict precisely what the deal will be, but here's how it's most likely to change:
1. There will be more delay.
May's letter officially withdrawing the UK from the EU was handed to European Council President Donald Tusk on March 29. But rather than head into negotiations right away, May decided to hold the snap election, which meant delaying the planned start of negotiations until June 19.
That will almost certainly be pushed back even more, as the Conservative Party now has its hands full trying to form a coalition with one or more other parties so as to remain in power. If, as now seems fairly likely, Theresa May winds up stepping down there will be even more delay. And if the parties can't sync up to form a majority government, there might even be a whole new election. That would put off negotiations even longer.
2. Britain will get a worse deal.
If everything had gone as planned, May would have walked into those negotiations week after next in a position of strength, able to confidently demand concessions from the Europeans because she had her whole country behind her. But now, with a weak mandate, she's in a bad position to force concessions from anyone. It's in the Europeans interest to make Brexit difficult on Britain, to discourage any other country from leaving. So don't expect negotiations to go Britain's way.
Europeans rarely make deals quickly, and the EU may have good reason to slow things down. Under EU law, once departure has been announced, it must be completed within two years, which is to say by March, 2019. If it doesn't have a deal by then, Britain will likely be forced out of European Union and the single market with no special trade agreement in place for its trade with the EU. If that happens, Britain will have to pay the same tariffs as any other country when trading with European countries
3. Brexit will probably still happen.
Experts say one reason Jeremy Corbyn, who heads the Labour Party, did so well in this election is because Labour, which did not support Brexit, publicly accepted the move nonetheless. Like it or not, Brexit is what
UK voters said they wanted. There has been some talk of a re-vote, and some argue that any agreement May enters into with the European Union would need another referendum vote before it became law.
But even if that happens, or if one of the numerous lawsuits against Brexit succeeds, or there's a second referendum and voters choose this time to remain in the EU, the European leaders likely won't want them to. They don't won't want any nation to feel it can jump in and out of the EU whenever it chooses.
With May's mandate shattered, the departure is less likely to be a "hard" Brexit in which Britain leaves the single market and EU citizens will no longer be able to move freely between EU member states and the UK. In a "soft" Brexit, there is both more free trade between the UK and Europe and also more freedom of movement between the UK and EU. That's likely to please the nearly half of British voters who never wanted to leave at all.