Britain Stumbles Toward Disunion

Posted By: September 23, 2018

Britain Stumbles Toward Disunion
Prime Minister Theresa May finds there’s no easy way to leave the European Union.

By The Editorial Board. New York Times. Saturday, February 22, 2018
(The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.)

Brexit was never expected to be easy, but the process of disentangling Britain from the European Union is proving ever more mind-boggling and rancorous as the deadline draws near. Earlier this week, the European Union declared Prime Minister Theresa May’s compromise proposal unworkable; later this month, she must defend it before a Conservative Party whose hard-core Brexiteers deem it unacceptable.

Time is fast running out. The European Union has declared a summit in October as the “moment of truth” for reaching a deal, which would then come before the British Parliament for approval before the final bell on March 29, when Britain is to be out of the union with or without a deal. Hard-core “leavers” insist that a deal-less exit isn’t terrible, but the prevailing view likens it to falling off a cliff.

All that puts extraordinary weight on the shoulders of Mrs. May, who was initially opposed to Britain’s leaving the European Union but fell into the job of carrying out the exit as the steady, low-key choice to take charge in the tumult following the June 2016 referendum vote to leave the union. Mrs. May has made her share of mistakes, including her gamble on a general election last year that cost her party its majority in Parliament, but she does have some advantages in the endgame, including her admirable sense of duty and others’ fears that her ouster would lead to political turmoil.

Part of the difficulty of discerning where things stand is the mix of agendas involved and the brinkmanship that always accompanies the final stages of negotiations. European Union leaders — especially the French president, Emmanuel Macron — are determined to make the exit as painful as possible to deter other union members from defecting. At a meeting of the bloc on Thursday, Mr. Macron said the “leave” victory in the 2016 referendum was orchestrated by politicians who predicted easy solutions. Those people “are liars,” he said.

At home, Mrs. May faces anti-union rebels within her party, like Boris Johnson, her former foreign secretary who quit over the compromise proposal she pushed through her cabinet in June, by which Britain would remain in a free trade area with the bloc for goods but not for services. Mr. Johnson likened the proposal to “polishing a turd” and is seen as a potential successor should the Tories dump Mrs. May.

Many Conservative members of Parliament, however, dread the notion of a rise of power by either the theatrical Mr. Johnson or the old-line socialist Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, and would more likely prefer to stay with Mrs. May whatever their reservations about her Brexit plan. In the European Union, too, some Euroskeptic leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary are sympathetic to Britain’s intent to leave the union and oppose Mr. Macron’s hard line.

In the end, Mrs. May’s best hope probably lies in a fudged agreement that would leave many specific details to be resolved in a transition period beyond the March deadline. That would make it easier for the prime minister to get approval from Parliament and to keep working on the devilish details, like what to do about the Irish border. With Britain out of the bloc, there would be a need for customs controls between Ireland, a European Union member, and Northern Ireland, a British province, a logistical and political nightmare that nobody wants.

Another option, favored by British politicians like the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and by many on the European Union side, is another referendum. Mrs. May insists there will not be a second vote, but given how much has come to light about the consequences of Brexit — and the possibility of Russian interference in the vote — there is a valid argument for putting the question back before the public.

However the game plays out, what is clear, to paraphrase a famous Englishman, is if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done amicably — and not too quickly. Making Britain an example to other Euroskeptics is not a valid argument for trammeling up the process since any country that opts to quit will very likely do so for its own reasons. And continuing to pretend that a cliff-edge break would be painless is pure demagogy. As the clock ticks down, it’s time for everyone to think about how to minimize the damage.