A pro-Brexit demonstrator waves a British Union Flag, also known as a Union Jack, outside the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

Reject May’s Brexit and Go Back to Voters

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Tuesday, the House of Commons is expected to — finally, maybe — vote on the terms of the U.K.’s exit from the European Union. The choice it faces is, if not simple, at least stark. The proposed plan would make the country poorer, weaker and less competitive. It will satisfy no one, confer no benefits, and settle nothing about Britain’s future. It should be voted down — and preparations should start for a second referendum.

The plan negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May would leave Britain’s economy half-in and half-out of the EU’s single market, introducing new trade frictions and imposing heavy costs. Exactly how big these might be is hard to say, and would depend on how things evolve. But under any plausible scenario, May’s Brexit would impede trade, harm growth, hinder businesses, slash public revenue, and leave everyone worse off.

It would also erode sovereignty. Until at least the end of 2020, Britain will be left adhering to the EU’s rules and standards while mostly giving up the power to shape them. It will be prevented from signing free-trade agreements of its own and required to keep paying its dues. If it fails to strike a longer-term deal in that interregnum, moreover, it will be locked indefinitely in an even worse arrangement (under the terms of the so-called backstop) with no obvious way to quit. Far from settling matters, this Brexit is a recipe for endless uncertainty.

What about the benefits? To the limited extent Brexiters were voting to curtail EU immigration, this deal offers a crumb of comfort by eventually ending free movement. To the extent Brexit was about anything else at all — trade, wages, jobs, taxes, living standards, bureaucracy, ideology — the deal worsens matters in every respect. Unsurprisingly, no one likes it.

It’s true that voting down the deal entails risks. Not least, it could make a chaotic exit somewhat more likely. But this threat has now been diminished. In December, Europe’s top court ruled that Britain could unilaterally end the Brexit process if it wanted to. Last week, Parliament took several steps to prevent the government from accepting a no-deal exit and to pressure it to come up with an alternative.

And what should that be?

Tinkering with this deal won’t work. It is so roundly opposed that it has achieved an odd kind of fixity: Change the terms to appease one side and another will hate it all the more. Alleviate any of its weaknesses and you exacerbate the others. Similarly, other Brexit options — such as a version of Norway’s arrangement with the EU, or Canada’s — might improve on this bargain in some respects. But in doing so they’d open up whole new avenues of complication and opposition. Put simply: It’s hard to envision a parliamentary majority for any available Brexit deal.

If May’s proposal is voted down, as seems likely, the government will have less than a week to propose another way forward. Many options are being mooted — convening a “grand coalition,” calling a general election, vacillating indefinitely — but the best choice by far is to stop the clock and consult the public, as a majority of voters now want.

Another vote would surely be acrimonious and unpredictable. It could result in a reversal of Brexit as narrow as the majority that once ratified it — or, indeed, no reversal at all. It will heal no wounds. But given the immense gap between what voters were promised in 2016 and the options now on offer, simple fairness dictates that they have a say. Not to mention that, given the government’s near-total paralysis, it may be the only way out.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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