Anti-Brexit campaigners hold a “Stop Brexit” sign during a protest near the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Brexit Has Failed, and Only a New Vote Can Fix It

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- You might think that the U.K. Parliament’s historic rejection of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal in January would have inspired some sober reflection. Evidently not.

Two months later, with just 17 days remaining before Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union, almost nothing has changed. Last-minute talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker yielded additional obfuscation but little of substance. The EU has insisted throughout that the withdrawal agreement it negotiated with May can’t be changed, and yesterday’s last-ditch maneuvering hasn’t in fact changed it. Goodwill is now exhausted. Incredible as it might seem, the prime minister still can’t describe the outcome for Britain she actually wants. 

Today May will once more try to persuade Parliament to support her essentially unchanged agreement. The Commons should reject it again, and for the same reasons: Her deal would cost jobs, reduce economic growth, harm competitiveness, and diminish Britain’s sovereignty and standing in the world, all while accomplishing next to nothing. Every serious analysis of the proposal has confirmed that it would be an expensive mistake.

The question, as always, is what should come next.

If the deal is voted down, May might calculate that yet more delay — more months of cynicism, uncertainty, and the looming cliff edge — could finally rescue her plan. Such a course would be beyond stubbornness. It would be a willful refusal to accept reality, only adding to the great harm the country has already suffered. Parliament should refuse to go along. If the deal fails, further votes will follow this week on whether to extend the Article 50 process that underpins Brexit and whether to rule out a no-deal exit. In that event, the Commons ought to support both measures — but also, crucially, take the opportunity to set out a new path forward.

Delaying the date of exit would be justified if, and only if, the government used the time to prepare for a second referendum. Britain’s voters should be asked to consider the chaos of the past two years, to see that the Brexit project has collapsed, and to think again. Europe, for its part, should resist the temptation to add unreasonable stipulations to an extension sought for that purpose, remembering that a no-deal exit on March 29 would harm its own citizens as well as Britain’s.

Although undoubtedly contentious, a second referendum would offer the public a chance to put Britain back on the path to sane and orderly government. Whatever happens today, this Parliament and prime minister have shown themselves incapable of doing that. One way or another, a new vote would give businesses some clarity about where Britain is headed. With luck, it might even bring this whole egregious misadventure to an end.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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