In Britain, Soul-Searching on ‘Brexit

Posted By: September 05, 2016

By THE EDITORIAL BOARDSEPT. New York Timed. Friday, October 2, 201

It has been more than two months since the British voted to leave the European Union, yet it often appears from the continuing debate in Britain that the June 23 referendum served only to intensify the questions about “Brexit.” That is healthy. A move as complex and consequential as this can only benefit from more discussion and soul-searching. After all, this is new territory, with Britain headed where no other E.U. member has gone before.

Theresa May, who replaced David Cameron as prime minister in the tumultuous aftermath of the referendum, on Wednesday used her first cabinet meeting after the summer break to reiterate her view that “Brexit means Brexit” — her firm intention is to guide Britain out of the union. She insists that Parliament will not be given a vote on the issue before the government triggers Article 50, the E.U. rule that formally initiates negotiations on ending a country’s union membership and sets a two-year deadline.

Categorical as that sounds, the reality is that Mrs. May’s government has not yet shown the unity or expertise to conduct the enormously complicated and delicate negotiations on reversing 40 years of European integration. The government seems to have no plan so far, beyond pledges to curb free movement between Britain and the E.U. — a central issue for those who supported Brexit — and at the same time to somehow retain access to the common market for British trade and services.

Arrayed against the Brexiteers is a loose coalition of political, business and grass-roots groups, including one called Scientists for E.U., that have continued to campaign fervently for remaining in the union. Their strategy includes a legal challenge demanding a parliamentary vote on invoking Article 50 and public demonstrations of the benefits of E.U. membership, including a “March for Europe” this weekend in London and several other cities.

The Remain advocates argue that leaving the E.U. will hurt British business, financial services, diversity, and innovation. Their hope is that sentiments about Brexit will change once people come to better understand its costs and ramifications. Bolstering the Remain agenda is a report from the Electoral Reform Society, a British advocacy group, which found a variety of flaws in the referendum, including voters who felt ill-informed by a negative campaign on both sides.

Mrs. May has given little indication as yet what her priorities may be in exit negotiations — whether, for example, she might be prepared to compromise on free movement and E.U. budget contributions in exchange for as much access to the European market as possible. There is no indication whether the other 27 E.U. members are prepared to give Britain any leeway.

In any case, the prime minister has said she will not invoke Article 50 before the end of the year. That, at least, allows time for the government to come up with a game plan and for the country to debate it before irreversible steps are taken.