Remainers, Be Careful What Brexit You Wish For

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The remainer side of the great Brexit divide might be tempted to feel a little smug right now. Things are finally looking up. It’s what lies around the corner that should scare them. 

There is almost no prospect of Britain leaving the European Union without a deal after last week’s dramatic parliamentary vote. Instead, Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn are talking – to each other. Her people and his are trying to find a compromise, that dirtiest of words in British political life.

If parliament can agree on a deal before the elections to the European Parliament on May 23, Britain will very likely end up with a much closer relationship with the EU than leavers want – perhaps in the form of a customs union or staying in the single market itself. If not, Britain’s exit date will face a prolonged delay, or even a referendum that could see Brexit reversed.

All of that sounds copacetic to remainer ears. But here’s a friendly warning: Be careful what you wish for. Europe looks increasingly weak, divided and rudderless. If that persists, the argument from Brexiters that Britain’s EU compromise was unnecessary and damaging will gain fresh ammunition.

In fact, it has already started. Speaking at a recent Chatham House event, the Brexit-supporting Cambridge Professor Robert Tombs noted:

It’s now clearly impossible for any member state to leave the EU without a crisis. And the EU has no plans for reform. And so the logical deduction is that the EU will face in future a growing series of crises, economic, social and political, to which there is no visible solution.

Brexit, says Tombs, could have been good for the EU, proving its flexibility and willingness to change. “Instead it has shown its defensiveness, its rigidity and its contempt for democracy.”

There is something to this case. There was a moment – call it Peak Europe – around the time when the EU’s Brexit negotiating mandate was established, when European officials declared in solidarity that we're all Irish now, the German economy looked invincible, and French President Emmanuel Macron seemed the apotheosis of homo politicus. That has now passed.

The euro zone isn’t in recession yet – but the data look bad. Germany’s manufacturing base is reeling from the slowdown in China’s economy and U.S. President Donald Trump’s protectionism. The consumer remains stalwart; but if that confidence wavers, the impact around the euro zone would be substantial. Industrial production is falling in states such as Italy and business confidence is down too. In Spain, youth unemployment is still running at more than 30 percent. France is hitting its deficit limits just as Macron’s big restructuring plans have been delayed or scaled back.

And then there is the euro zone itself, a currency union designed with a potentially fatal hole in its heart – the lack of a fiscal union to address its major imbalances. The EU has patched this up as best it could after the financial crisis. But its more ambitious reform plans have stalled.

Politically, Europe looks more fractious too. Nationalist, populist parties are on the rise and may be well-represented in the European Parliament after May’s elections. Poland and Hungary continue to thumb their noses at EU institutions and basic principles of democracy.

All of this is grist for the Brexiter mill. If Europe were to suffer a serious crisis – an economic crisis in one member state that metastasizes – the finger-wagging and fist-shaking will be visible from across the channel.

Remainers have some reasonable arguments to make in return: They will note that they never said Europe was perfect – some even claimed that it is deeply and irretrievably flawed – but membership offered benefits that simply can’t be matched by any of those that come from being outside the bloc in our hyper-connected world.

They will also note that the U.K. always played a moderating and often hugely important role inside Europe before Brexit; the bloc’s problems may well be even worse now than they would have been with full-throated British input. And if Europe sneezes, Britain will still catch a cold; that is just how geographic proximity works.

The bad news for remainers is that opponents of the May-Corbyn deal (or extension) will weaponize the EU no matter what. Even if there is no big crisis that tears Europe apart but, as is more likely, a prolonged sclerosis, euroskepticism will return on steroids.

Leavers will regard the limbo of an extension or a soft Brexit as a frontal attack on Britain’s identity and a sacrifice of what could have been. It would mark the death of a vision, and they will never move on to the acceptance stage of grieving. They will be parked in anger and denial.

The betrayal narrative has already started. Nigel Farage, the former head of the U.K. Independence Party, has set up a Brexit Party to run in the European elections. One Brexiter warned that it will “rise like a phoenix,” sucking voters away from the Conservative Party.

Or hear one of Brexit’s biggest proponents, Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg: “If a long extension leaves us stuck in the EU we should be as difficult as possible. We could veto any increase in the budget, obstruct the putative EU army and block Mr Macron’s integrationist schemes,” he tweeted. These are not the words of calm, reasoned political debate.

Not only will this feud continue to rip at the fabric of the Conservative Party, it will be a major disrupting force in British politics. Far more Britons now identify themselves by how they voted in the 2016 EU referendum than by party. The betting markets think an election will come well before 2022, because how can any prime minister manage with these divisions?

The author Michael Morpurgo notes that Brexit isn’t one divorce, but two. The second, between the two opposing sides in the referendum, will be bitter and fester for years.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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