A European Union (EU) flag flies in front of Elizabeth Tower, commonly referred to as Big Ben in central London, U.K. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

It’s Still Possible to Avoid a No-Deal Brexit

(The Bloomberg View) -- The fog surrounding Britain’s decision to leave the European Union shows no sign yet of clearing. The U.K. exits the union next March — but, more than two years after the country voted to go, the terms of its separation and the form of the future relationship are entirely unresolved.

This continuing uncertainty is a huge cost in its own right. But the failure to conclude a sensible withdrawal agreement — meaning that Britain would quit without arrangements in place to maintain orderly flows of goods and capital with Europe — would compound that cost disastrously. The U.K. has no easy escape from the bind it has put itself in, but with the EU’s cooperation, it can and should avoid that worst possible outcome.

Theresa May’s government continues to pretend that a no-deal Brexit need not be a disaster. Her ministers have started publishing plans for the measures that no deal would require — for new infrastructure and staffing at ports, and for managing the countless administrative complexities that would arise. Firms are starting to make their own plans for stockpiling medicines and other essentials.  

One can sympathize with Remainers who want to see this absurdity unfold — thus demonstrating the folly of the whole Brexit adventure, perhaps so brutally that it would force a belated rethink. One can also understand the most ardent Brexiteers who prefer no deal to arrangements that would leave economic ties largely in place, believing that the economy can shrug off what they see as a minor inconvenience. Both positions are wrong: The risks are too great.

Certainly, it’s to be hoped that the U.K. will vote again, and choose to rejoin the EU. The sooner this happens, the better. But with time running out, the top priority should be to avoid the chaos of no deal.

The two sides have tentatively agreed to a short transitional arrangement that leaves the U.K. with the rights and responsibilities of EU membership, but without any say in the running of the union. But even this understanding is on hold, with both sides insisting that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This posture is unhelpful. Obstacles to executing the transitional agreement can and should be set aside immediately, so that the looming cliff-edge exit can be ruled out. (Issues such as the status of the border between Ireland and the U.K. are best addressed later.) In addition, the planned transition should then be extended for as long as necessary to come to terms on a future trade and security partnership.

Straightforward as this might seem, both sides are reluctant to do it — the U.K. because many would denounce this as Brexit in name only, and Europe’s governments because they want a faster resolution. Neither position makes sense. The future trade partnership will take several years to hammer out. Imposing phony deadlines on a complex process only adds to the prevailing uncertainty.

Perhaps, as the process unfolds, Britain will have the opportunity to rethink its decision to quit while Europe debates its own constitutional future with or without the U.K. Maybe, despite everything, the European project can be put back on track.

Regardless, there’ll be no excuse for failing to avoid the needless upheaval of a no-deal Brexit.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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