OXFORD -- Britain's general elections have resulted in a hung parliament, with the Conservatives gaining 297 seats to Labour's 252 and the Liberal Democrats' 53. Scrambling has begun to form a coalition government.
While it is conceivable that Labour could form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and that Gordon Brown could remain at 10 Downing Street, it is far more likely that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives, becomes the new prime minister. As for the implications of a potential Conservative government for transatlantic relations, the most significant impact is likely to be an indirect one: Britain's further distancing of itself from the European Union.
Bilateral ties between the United States and UK are certainly finding a new and lower equilibrium; the "special relationship" is becoming less special. But that has very little to do with British politics and the foreign policy predilections of its leaders--and everything to do with the fact that America's strategic attention is shifting beyond the Euro-Atlantic area.
Of greater importance than the ups and downs of the Anglo-American partnership is the Conservative Party's antipathy toward European integration. Europe desperately needs Britain--its leadership, its economy and participation in the eurozone, and its ability to project force. Cameron would be likely to deny Europe all three. That is worrisome given that the EU is experiencing unprecedented vulnerabilities.
The financial crisis in Greece has raised troubling questions about the future of the eurozone. Germany, the EU's historical engine, seems to have lost enthusiasm for its European vocation. The Belgian government recently collapsed just as it was preparing to take over the rotating presidency of the EU at mid-year.
The United States needs in the EU a strong partner better able to share global burdens. Otherwise, Europe may gradually slip off America's radar screen. The Conservatives may well try to revitalize Britain's historic bond to the United States. But their open skepticism of the project of European integration promises to have the opposite effect: ensuring that the EU falls well short of the more capable partner Washington so urgently seeks.
A final risk is that the next British government, whatever its complexion, will be a weak one. The Conservatives have not done as well as expected, the surge in support for the Liberal Democrats has not materialized, and the election was an effective vote of no confidence in Labour. With no clear mandate from the British electorate, the next government may not have the wherewithal and political backing needed to tackle the formidable challenges facing Britain, Europe, and the broader international community.