An anti-Brexit demonstrator wearing a Union flag suit, also known as a Union Jack, waves a European Union (EU) flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)  

The Problem Isn’t Theresa May. It’s Brexit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If not Theresa May’s Brexit deal, then what?

That’s the question British lawmakers face if they reject the divorce agreement the prime minister negotiated with the European Union. MPs may find some answers — but none will be satisfying, and it’s unlikely any would command a parliamentary majority.

On Wednesday night, May announced that her cabinet had collectively agreed a deal that would ensure Britain’s orderly departure from the EU. The agreement would allow the country to limit immigration, one of the Brexiters’ key demands.

By Thursday morning, the deal was on its deathbed.

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab slept on it and then became the second holder of that office to resign in protest of a deal he supposedly helped to negotiate. That was followed by a cascade of other resignations lower down the ranks. There is a good chance now that her deal will be rejected by Parliament and her leadership challenged by members of her own party. May herself hasn’t conceded anything: She spent some three hours in Parliament Thursday defending her agreement and calling on MPs to act in the national interest.

Her plan is undeniably flawed, the timing awful, and the prime minister herself made mistakes along the way. And yet the chief problem here isn’t any of these. It is that the country’s lawmakers can’t agree about how they should honor the 52-48 percent referendum vote to leave the EU.

Saying “no” is tempting. Each group of opponents can say they stood firm at their red lines.

For the Democratic Unionist Party, the small Northern Irish party that has propped up May’s minority government, the fact that the deal allows Northern Ireland to be treated differently from the rest of U.K. is unacceptable as they see it as a violation of the country’s constitutional integrity.

The opposition Labour Party complains the deal is too great a compromise to be acceptable. It doesn’t guarantee access to EU markets sufficiently, or protect workers’ rights for starters.

Brexiters in May’s own party are unhappy that the EU will have a veto over whether Britain leaves the backstop arrangement keeping it in the customs union and that the European Court of Justice will remain the final arbiter of EU law.

But none of these complaints amount to a positive proposal for anything on which a majority of MPs could agree. Those who reject May’s deal need to have a better idea with which to replace it.

There were always two alternative routes, but neither commanded a parliamentary majority. The one preferred by Brexiters is a free trade agreement, with some enhancements to reflect the closer U.K.-EU relationship, using the European Union’s trade deal with Canada as a base. And yet that option doesn’t solve the Irish border question and imposes more costs to the U.K. economy than the closer arrangements on offer.

Another alternative was closer cooperation in the form of a Norway-style arrangement by which Britain remains inside the single market, but outside the customs union. It would be free to negotiate its own trade deals. This, the least economically damaging form of Brexit, had several insuperable problems, not least that the U.K. voted to leave Europe in part to regain control over immigration and the single market requires accepting the free movement of labor.

Neither of those options is any more feasible now. Crashing out of the EU without a deal would be unconscionable and it is unlikely Parliament would allow it. That leaves two further outcomes: Allowing a popular vote, or making amendments or concessions that might make the existing agreement palatable.

May was repeatedly asked about a second referendum in Parliament on Thursday — and rejected it. There is growing support for the idea, but it presents several obstacles: Should voters be asked if they want to remain in the EU as one option? Brexiters would consider that a betrayal of the original referendum. What happens if the vote is in favor of staying by a similar margin? And what if voters favor no deal?

Surely Parliament would be unlikely to accept the latter; but neither will Brexiters accept a vote between a deal they hate and remaining in the EU, something they hate even more.

May hasn’t quite run out of options: She could make further concessions, such as allowing Parliament a say over the treaty governing the future trade relationship with the EU, something which will be negotiated after March 29, 2019. That might buy some time and may satisfy some of the softer opponents to her deal. But her position of leadership is in jeopardy.

There are no easy ways out. Whatever Britain decides, it will have to do so by consensus, and that’s what all sides have yet to come to terms with. Replacing May might give some Brexiters a degree of satisfaction; that’s why someone invented punching bags. But it won’t help. They will still be faced with an uncomfortable truth: The problem here isn’t May or her agreement; it’s that Brexit forces some uncomfortable choices on the country.

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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