British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers her speech, in Florence, Italy, Friday Sept. 22, 2017. May will try Friday to revive foundering Brexit talks — and unify her fractious government — by proposing a two-year transition after Britain's departure from the European Union in 2019 during which the U.K. would continue to pay into the bloc's coffers. (AP Photo/Maurizio Degl'Innocenti, Pool) Image Credit: AP

For the past six months, there has been rising confidence in European political circles that populist and nationalist forces on the Continent were being overcome. With the Netherlands and France electing moderate leaders, and Angela Merkel set for re-election, there has even been a certain conceit — that populism had turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, producing Donald Trump and Brexit, but with sensible voters in the rest of the European Union cleaving to the centre ground. Any such narrative lies in ruins today.

With the nationalist Alternative for Germany party winning at least 80 seats in parliament, and the far Left also doing well, nearly a quarter of Germans voted for the political extremes. It is important not to understate the significance of this outcome. This is Germany: the most powerful state in the EU, an economic success story, and possessed of a strong culture of political moderation since 1945. When millions of its citizens vote to overturn that culture something is seriously wrong.

There are many obvious lessons to be drawn. First, that all those who have told us for years that proportional voting systems work against extremists need to think again. Second, that Europe is indeed beset by strong populist forces bubbling up beneath the complacent assumptions of its chancelleries — Spain battling Catalan separatism, Italy in political shambles, France with a centrist new president but a huge vote of discontent, and Poland and Hungary led by nationalistic governments.

Third, that in these circumstances the pursuit of the Jean-Claude Juncker agenda of forcing all EU members to join the euro and removing their vetoes on tax and foreign policy is more likely to destroy the union than save it. And fourth, that immigration is the single most crucial issue of the coming years.

Merkel has already promised not to repeat her opening up of German borders to a million migrants and refugees, but the next 30 years will bring more than a billion extra people in Africa and the Middle East. European countries need much stronger control of their borders, a full network of agreements to control migration with all the countries to their south, and a huge effort to encourage development and stability in many places with booming populations. Yet no leader has set out an overall plan to do this despite the prospect that this issue alone could overwhelm EU unity and shatter its centrist political leadership.

The strategic outlook for Europe is now an extremely difficult one. Threatened by an immigration crisis it will struggle to control, the EU also faces Russia seeking to neuter it, America diverging from it, Turkey turning away from it, and a Eurozone with problems that will reappear with the next recession.

Against that background of mounting dangers and clear rebellion by voters, I have a polite suggestion for my old friends and colleagues around the foreign ministries and parliaments of Europe: you now have the opportunity to respond constructively to one of your other big headaches, namely Britain’s exit. In a world of problems you will struggle to overcome, this one now has a solution. The speech delivered by Theresa May in Florence last Friday demonstrated the British commitment to uphold the security of the rest of Europe. She also rightly pointed out that when we have left the EU, we will be its biggest trading partner, so it is in our common interest to reach a workable agreement. And she called for “a new alliance that can stand strongly together in the world”. That is indeed what we are all going to need.

The [British] prime minister’s speech contained serious offers. It suggested solutions to difficult issues — like how to enforce the rights of EU citizens in the UK — and promised that we would not leave other countries with higher bills to pay or less money than they were expecting. It was clear about seeking a two-year transition to help businesses in every country to prepare. Yes, it took great political effort in a minority government in which everyone has strong opinions, but it said everything that those of us favouring a realistic and pragmatic approach to Brexit had asked for.

EU negotiators are not of course going to say: “Marvellous, that’s cracked it and we can settle on whatever you just said.” As talks resume this week, they are going to probe for more details, press for further specific commitments, and nail down as many concessions as possible. Fair enough. But in three weeks’ time, the EU heads of government will meet and will have to decide whether enough progress is being made to warrant widening the negotiations into a full discussion of the future relationship and all the matters the UK needs to discuss.

They know they have time on their side, because the longer it takes to make a breakthrough in the talks, the more international businesses will make plans to move out of Britain. So they will be tempted to delay matters further, with the probability that Merkel will be mired for many weeks in coalition negotiations as an excuse. One or two more months, they might calculate, will screw a bit more money out of the British.

In narrow negotiating terms, such an attitude would not be a huge surprise. But in broader strategic terms — looking at the need for a sensible outcome — it would be a great mistake, suggesting a Europe lacking in vision and incapable of leadership, the very things so many voters are rebelling against. It would harden the attitudes of many people in the UK, and make it more difficult for May to seal an eventual agreement.

Europe’s leaders are underestimating the scale of the challenges they face, as the shock of the German elections has shown. They are going to need a mutually supportive friendship with us in Britain, just as we need that with them.

Since the [British] prime minister has done all she could reasonably do to unlock the talks on what that might mean, they need to respond in kind. If they don’t, they will risk adding yet another big item to the long and growing list of problems darkening Europe’s future, of an estranged, not just separated, Britain. They will have enough to deal with, without the justified resentment of a generous and fair-minded people.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017

William Hague is the former UK foreign secretary and a former leader of the Conservative Party