Theresa May’s Make-or-Break Brexit Moment

(The Bloomberg View) -- Hours ahead of a make-or-break meeting with her cabinet, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May had yet to settle on a proposal for her country’s future relationship with the European Union. After many wasted months, and with time to reach agreement with the EU fast running out, May needs to lay out a clear proposal and confront its inevitable critics.

In the end she might fail — but further indecision makes failure all but certain.

To put it mildly, May is in a tough spot. She leads a weak minority government (because her call for an election last year backfired). Her party is bitterly divided between those seeking a deal as close as possible to EU membership and others who want what they call a clean break. The EU, to make things worse, opposes any compromise that might plausibly bridge that gap. Any proposal she advances is therefore likely to founder — either because it provokes a political revolt against her leadership, or because the EU rejects it, or quite possibly both.

Whatever she does, the risk of a chaotic no-deal Brexit is growing. But there’s no chance of resolving the impasse until May puts her job on the line by setting out a plan.

Up to now, the EU’s position has been clear: The U.K. can take a deal like Norway’s, which would grant membership in the EU’s single market for both goods and services, but which would also require Britain to accept the free movement of people, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and whatever new laws and regulations the EU sees fit to enact — all without having any say in the running of the union. This option would also rule out new trade deals with other countries.

Alternatively, the U.K. can negotiate a free-trade agreement like the one the EU has with Canada. That would be better than no deal at all, but not nearly as good for U.K. producers (especially of services) as membership of the single market. Anything less than single-market membership has the further drawback of requiring a new customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

Reviewing these bleak possibilities underlines the folly of Britain’s choice to quit the EU. Conceivably, that choice might yet be reversed, though not without great political upheaval. For now, what’s needed is a plan — any plan — to avoid a cliff-edge exit next March.

Indications are that May is going to propose a complicated middle course between Norway and Canada. The EU is likely to resist this, and it won’t be popular with much of her party. A better approach would be a Norway-like arrangement that would remain in place for as long as it takes to negotiate an enhanced version of the Canada-EU free-trade agreement — or, preferably, have second thoughts and ask to rejoin the union.

Critics of the Norway approach are right to say that it satisfies nobody. It’s constitutionally defective because it involves obligations without representation — a fatal flaw for any long-term solution. It also involves continuing uncertainty, precisely because it leaves open the question of what comes after. But it avoids the cliff edge, minimizes short-term disruption, and lifts the deadline that’s making wise calculation and calm negotiation next to impossible. Securing those benefits ought to be the immediate priority.

If May proposed this, she could expect Brexit supporters to cry betrayal. But that’s a risk she should steel herself to face. She must propose a plan for least disruption to the country, ask for voters’ support, and face down her opponents — or else stand aside and let somebody else do it.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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