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Europe risks overindulging in Brexit schadenfreude

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron attend a press conference at the Chancellery on May 15, 2017 in Berlin, Germany.
Axel Schmidt | Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron attend a press conference at the Chancellery on May 15, 2017 in Berlin, Germany.

Britain's chaotic election result is a boon for its European partners. It gives them a much stronger hand in talks over how the country should leave the European Union. But overindulging in schadenfreude, as some Europeans are already doing, could backfire.

It's small wonder the UK's European partners are groaning after Theresa May's disastrous election gamble. Even if the prime minister can form a coalition or minority government, her administration will be less stable and predictable. It may not have the parliamentary support to make compromises and stick to agreements. Talks could be delayed by repeated elections.

But Brussels should look on the bright side. The electorate did not reward May's desire for a clean break with Europe, or a radical cut to immigration. And she may now have to team up with the northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which backed Brexit, but wants a smooth border with Ireland, and could tilt talks towards the UK staying in the customs union and single market.

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Europe might be tempted to make the most of the UK's weak negotiating position, giving no relief on the tight timetable that requires a deal by March 2019, and demanding a high divorce bill. As Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, tweeted on Friday: "We don't know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end."

That would be a mistake, because it could boost anti-EU sentiment and revive the fortunes of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party, which won no seats on June 8. The risk of the UK crashing out of the EU in 2019 could grow, hurting both it and its trading partners.

The better response would be to defuse tensions. If Britain has to hold another election, it may need to extend the date when its EU membership automatically ends. That's possible if all countries agree. Europe could also be flexible on the mooted divorce bill, especially since a long transition period would mean UK paying into the EU budget for longer, and could elicit compromise on issues like free movement of people.

After May railed against the "bureaucrats of Brussels" in her election campaign, the urge to crow over her electoral drubbing is entirely understandable. This would be a good moment to prove that Europe can rise above such petty politics.

Commentary by Neil Unmack and Olaf Storbeck, both London-based columnists at Breakingviews. Follow Umack on Twitter at @Unmack1 and Storbeck at @OlafStorbeck.

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