Brexit Negotiators, Please Dial Down the Drama

(The Bloomberg View) -- Few expected a major breakthrough at the informal Brexit summit in Austria this week. But with six months to go until Britain exits the European Union, and scant progress made on the most contentious issues impeding a deal, perhaps some encouraging words or good-faith concessions would’ve been nice. Nope.

British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to the assembled EU leaders for about 10 minutes Wednesday night and evidently failed to make much of an impression. Germany and France expressed glum doubts and worse. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, insisted a Brexit deal is “far away.” Donald Tusk, head of the European Council, said that May’s trade plan simply “will not work.”

Such theatrics are to be expected in negotiations, of course. But May, beset by domestic political discord, needs all the help she can get to ensure that a reasonable deal gets hammered out. And such a deal — one that minimizes the inevitable damage of Brexit and avoids the danger that Britain exits chaotically — remains in everyone’s best interest.

Two bargains still need to be struck. One is a political accord laying out a vision for future trade and security arrangements between the two sides. Second, and far more important, is a formal withdrawal agreement that would, among other things, establish a “backstop” to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) in the event that no deal is reached.

The first can be fudged; the second will require more finesse and flexibility than either side has thus far shown.

In making a deal on a backstop, pragmatism should be the byword. The EU thinks Northern Ireland alone should remain in its customs union and single market, which would effectively require checks on goods coming from the broader U.K. May finds this intolerable and would prefer the whole of the U.K. remain in the customs territory if a deal can’t be reached. The EU says, with some justification, that this would undermine its single market.

There are plausible ways of squaring this circle. One is to “de-dramatize” the issue, as the EU’s Michel Barnier puts it, by conducting more regulatory checks away from the border — at ports, factories, or airports, for instance. Many customs checks, likewise, could be handled in transit (aboard ferries, say) or ahead of time. Much of the needed inspections could be conducted by U.K. officials rather than their EU counterparts. 

Any such agreement will still demand sacrifices. The EU should be mindful that May has already made significant concessions and that driving a harder bargain could well upend her government. May, for her part, should accept that somewhat different trade arrangements for Northern Ireland needn’t be an egregious violation of sovereignty and would almost certainly be part of any larger bargain.

Of course, even at this late date, the best outcome remains a second referendum that would allow British voters to reverse this misguided decision before it causes any more damage. Such a vote is still legally feasible, if politically fraught, and now that the full consequences of Brexit have become clearer, a plurality of Brits favor the idea. The clock, however, is ticking.

Failing another vote, both sides must find a plausible way to avoid the worst potential outcomes of this dubious process. Getting there will require May to survive dissension in her own party, secure a deal with EU leaders sometime this fall, and then get the whole thing ratified by Parliament. Even if it avoided disaster, the resulting accord would probably be roundly hated. Such is the price of pragmatism.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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