Europe reacts as May sees off leadership challenge

‘What’s happening in the UK, which we thought was boringly stable, is quite extraordinary’: Europe reacts as May sees off leadership challenge

In the final days before the Brexit vote, Jean-Claude Juncker had warned that “a deserter not be welcomed with open arms – that is the stance of the commission as well as other governments”. Last year, after a meeting with Theresa May in Downing Street, the European Commission chief declared “I leave Downing Street more sceptical than I was ever before” about the UK’s negotiating stance.

But after Britain’s long goodbye, a bitter parting amid accusations and recriminations, the deal which had been hammered out was not exactly “welcomed with open arms” by the European Union. Rather, it was seen as the best of bad choices, and Ms May was perceived as the one who could realistically deliver it.

The vote last night, which the prime minister won by 200 to 117, was largely received with relief in the knowledge that no new leadership bid can take place for 12 months – the prospect of immediate political upheaval while the Brexit process remains in gridlock was too much to bear for many onlookers in Europe. At a diplomatic reception in the evening the general feeling was that the prime minister was going to win and, when the result came through just after 9pm, there was not a huge amount of surprise. “We can perhaps stop talking about Brexit now all the time until the new year”, an official from a west European embassy remarked, “and then acknowledge that nothing has really been settled yet”.

Throughout the last week the number of emails and phone calls between both EU embassies in London and their capitals have steadily risen. There has been bemusement and amusement as the government was found guilty of contempt by parliament, lost one vote, reneged on its promise to hold another, and then as Conservative MPs organised a putsch against their leader in the critical moment of the Brexit talks.

A diplomat from a Nordic state remarked on Monday: “After decades of predictable politics there has been a move away from the centre in our countries, with the gains made by rightwing parties in Sweden, but also Norway and Denmark, and that is something very unusual. But what is happening in the UK, the country we thought was so boringly stable, is quite extraordinary. It is the most unexpected thing to watch for us. In fact the whole Brexit process has been strange, we never thought the British people would take such a gamble. And now what is to happen, a new prime minister every year?”

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