Britain Finds Out What It Means to 'Take Back Control'

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The mantra “take back control” meant different things to different Brexit voters during the June 2016 referendum. But it’s pretty certain no one thought they’d be getting what came out of Wednesday night’s European Union summit.

When they finally emerged in the early hours Thursday, the EU’s leaders had agreed to push back the U.K.'s Brexit deadline yet again, this time to Oct. 31. The guiding principle seems to be “when in doubt, give more time.” The only control Theresa May’s government appears to possess is getting Europe to regularly delay the country’s departure.

It's hard to fault the bloc’s leaders, though; a no-deal Brexit hurts all sides. Nor do they want to be blamed for forcing an artificial timetable. If an extra six months offers fatigued British lawmakers an opportunity to find common ground, and for a measure of order and civility to return to the nation’s political life – whether through elections or other means – it will be to the good.

Unfortunately, there’s every reason to think the opposite will be the case: That is, the reprieve will be used instead by all sides in the U.K. to dig in and slug it out for control. It’s happening already. Brexiters in May’s ruling Conservative Party feel betrayed and will focus their firepower on a change of leadership and bringing maximum disruption to the EU for as long as the U.K. stays in. Remain supporters, newly hopeful that all of the delays can turn into a reversal of the Brexit vote, or at least a new referendum or a closer EU relationship than the one set out in May’s withdrawal deal, may be less likely to agree to what’s on the table.

The added time merely multiplies the number of battlegrounds. European parliamentary elections, a Tory leadership contest to replace May, a general election and a referendum are all possible now. Somewhere in there, though, Britain still has to decide on whether and how it will leave.

From that perspective, the new Oct. 31 deadline creates as many problems as it solves. The first repercussion, if May doesn’t find an agreement that can win approval from U.K. lawmakers before, is that Britain will contest the European elections on May 23. On Monday, the government laid the legal groundwork for that vote, and the wording betrayed its awkwardness: “This Order appoints the date of the European parliamentary elections, but it does not make these elections inevitable as leaving the EU before the date of election automatically removes our obligation to take part.”

Usually, European elections go largely unnoticed in the U.K. Turnout was just shy of 36 percent in the last one. But this time might be different. It’s a lousy proxy for a Brexit referendum where voters actually choose an outcome (say between a deal that has parliamentary approval and remaining in the EU), but some voters may be inclined to think it’s the best chance they’ll get to vent their fury on the subject.

What makes the European elections interesting is that they’re decided by proportional representation, rather than the usual winner-takes-all system in British elections which props up the two largest parties. It’s an opportunity for smaller outfits – such as Nigel Farage’s europhobic Brexit Party and Change UK, a new grouping of remainer defectors – to exploit disaffection with the main parties.

For May’s Conservatives, the very idea of these elections is agony. Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi called it an “existential threat” to the party. It shows with naked clarity the Tories’ divisions and their failure to fulfill the mandate given by voters three years ago to quit the EU. It’s also a potent reminder of the chance that Britain may just decide eventually to stay in the bloc after all.

The Conservatives are sifting through CVs to select candidates, but what can they possibly offer as a platform, given the bitter divide in the party between the Brexit ultras and more compromise-minded centrists? Do they promise, as some Tory Brexiters have threatened, to be a disruptive force until the EU insists on a departure? Farage’s new Brexit Party is already running that campaign.

A poll on current voting intentions by Open Europe shows Labour at 37.8 percent, the Conservatives with 23 percent, and the Brexit Party at 10.3 percent. But it’s hard to trust the polls before campaigning has begun. The prospect of these elections, which naturally horrifies May, might provide fresh impetus for her talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to try to secure a cross-party deal. They have been largely performative so far.

There does appear to be a majority of U.K. lawmakers who’d support a Brexit where Britain stays in a customs union with the EU – which is close to Labour’s position. But May hasn’t been willing to accept a measure that her party finds intolerable, and Corbyn doesn’t trust that her successor would honor a deal anyhow.

“How has it come to this – that today every material decision on Brexit and the U.K.’s future will be in the EU27’s gift?” Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain's former ambassador to the U.S. and a Brexit supporter, tweeted before Wednesday’s summit. A minority government seeking the impossible and promising the undeliverable hasn’t helped. But he’s wrong ultimately. The material decision on Brexit must still be made by Britain.

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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