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Election Results Reflect Changes Europe Is Going Through

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Europe right now, like the U.S., political upheaval appears to be the new norm. In France, a brand new political party controls the presidency and is poised to take the Parliament as well while in Britain last week, the governing Conservative Party was pushed to the brink of defeat by voters with the prospect of another election in the near future.

To help make sense of all this we're joined in our studio by David Rennie. He is Washington bureau chief for The Economist. Hey, David. Thanks for being here again.

DAVID RENNIE: Hello.

MARTIN: What do you read in these two elections in the U.K. and France - any common themes?

RENNIE: Yeah, I think there are. Although, it's important to note that these are always their own national elections. And so most obviously, the center disappeared in the U.K., and everyone went to the right and the left of the two big parties - and on the face of it, completely the opposite result in France, where the center - this new centrist party basically just wiped out the traditional left and right parties.

So it does - you know, there's some very distinctive national themes. But if you take a step back, voters are still I think saying that the traditional parties and things that have been kind of written in stone for decades in terms of how the political system worked do not deliver what they want, that someone needs to deliver something completely different and that they're willing to take a risk on something so new that a lot of the experts and traditional politicians said, no, no, you can't vote for that. That's nonsense. You can't do that. Voters are not in the mood to be told what they can and can't vote for.

MARTIN: Of course now there's a lot of pressure on Macron to actually deliver on those promises now that he has this majority in France. But I want to talk about what's happening in the U.K. because the stakes are pretty high right now. Negotiations to leave the EU are expected to start next week. So in the wake of this election that Theresa May called of her own will and then almost lost, is the U.K. in a weaker position going into these talks?

RENNIE: Absolutely. And I think if you're a European government, you must be pretty frustrated with the U.K. because we started this. We demanded to have a big discussion about Brexit and how we would leave. And now we're in no position with no coherent strategy for how to make that work. We're kind of the neighborhood kids who ring your doorbell and run away. I mean that's what it feels like from the continent.

I think it would be lovely to say that the last election in the U.K. was a big national discussion about, goodness, we voted to leave; how do we make this work? It really wasn't. It was mostly domestic, about how much to spend on schools and hospitals. And then on the European front, Theresa May said, OK, here's the deal. If you really want to control immigration and close the borders, then we may have to leave the single market and lose some of those trading privileges. That was her pitch. Give me a mandate for that. And the voter said, no. So we know what they don't want, but we don't really know what they do want.

MARTIN: Do they want Theresa May to keep her job?

RENNIE: No. And I think the reason she's still prime minister is because the very ambitious rivals around her in the Tory Party don't actually want her job right now.

MARTIN: Who wants it? I mean this is an incredibly complicated time where someone needs to steer the ship through these negotiations.

RENNIE: So there's some obvious big beasts, people like Boris Johnson. Listeners may remember. He's the foreign secretary, very flamboyant. There's some interesting people. Like, there's a leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who is Ruth Davidson. She's actually taken the sort of big role as someone who's saying that we need to be a softer, more moderate party. Her party did really well. People would love for her to come down, but she isn't a member of the U.K. Parliament. She's a Scottish politician. There's a real sense people know what they don't want, real sense of a country adrift - doesn't know exactly what it does want.

MARTIN: Do Brits still want to leave the EU? I mean was this a referendum on the whole Brexit vote?

RENNIE: They do, but they don't want it to cost anything in terms of prosperity. And that's going to be the crunch because actually they're in denial about what it will cost them.

MARTIN: David Rennie, Washington bureau chief for The Economist, thanks so much for coming in.

RENNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.