Britain’s Next Great Brexit Mistake

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Britain’s government will soon begin pleading for a delay in the country’s exit from the European Union. Without this, Brexit would go ahead on March 29 with no agreement in place to manage the disruption that would follow. The House of Commons has already rejected (twice, and by huge margins) the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May, and yesterday voted against leaving the EU with no deal — so a delay is undoubtedly necessary. The question is, what sort of delay?

A short pause is seen as most likely. But this is not the right answer. The delay shouldn’t be for a few weeks or months. It should be long and indefinite. In other words, Parliament should steel itself not just to briefly suspend Article 50, Britain’s notice to quit the union, but to revoke it altogether — and to do so while it still can.

I’m offering this advice as somebody who’s sympathetic to the Brexit cause. In my view, the European Union is a political project devoid of effective democratic leadership, heedlessly committed to a program of constitutional integration that most of its citizens don’t want. For years disaffection has been especially pronounced in the United Kingdom. The Leavers’ narrow win in the referendum of 2016 understates it, because there were many reluctant Remainers like me, who believed that Brexit would end badly but have no great regard for the EU. If Britain remains a member after all, especially under these circumstances, popular resentment will only increase, and the issue will be anything but resolved. I understand all this. Nonetheless, I’m saying that Article 50 should be revoked.

The essential point is that the Brexit process has finally collapsed — and in the foreseeable future, starting from here, it cannot be rescued. Until further notice, it needs to be scrapped.

Things didn’t have to be this way. A wisely led EU would have come to an accommodation with the U.K., developing a form of associate membership combining a high degree of economic integration with a looser form of political union. A minimally competent British government would have chosen either to pursue that goal patiently from the inside as a member with voting power, or else, if that proved impossible, to achieve the same result as an adequately prepared outsider.

The first and far more promising approach was dropped by accident. David Cameron, rebuffed by other EU governments over the issue of internal migration, tried to quell dissent in his party by calling the referendum, which he then proceeded to lose. That was the error from which all the rest followed. Cameron’s bungling made it necessary to adopt the second approach: design a new arrangement having already decided to leave. This was sure to be harder, though not impossible. It demanded strong, smart leadership. What Britain got was Theresa May.

The pantomime of the past few days sums it up to perfection. May scuttles at the last minute to Strasbourg to beg mercy from the European Commission’s president, who graciously allows the U.K. a second chance, as he called it, to accept the EU’s terms — while saying nothing has changed and after this there’ll be no more clarifications of clarifications, because his patience is quite at an end. May returns to the Commons, voice failing, to croak out the case for approving the same withdrawal agreement that members had rejected just weeks ago by a record-breaking majority. Watching this despicable spectacle, I thought of Oscar Wilde’s famous remark about the death of Little Nell in “The Old Curiosity Shop”: You’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.

Cameron’s biggest mistake was to call the referendum without understanding the risk he was taking. May’s biggest mistake, having inherited that disaster, was to compound it — first by issuing the Article 50 notice and specifying an exit date without even the vaguest notion of a Brexit plan, and second by letting the clock run down month after month without preparing for the possibility of an acrimonious no-deal separation. Many more errors followed, including one of the most incompetent election campaigns in living memory. Rarely, in fact, did May miss a chance to make things worse. There’s something quintessentially Theresa May about insisting that no deal is better than a bad deal, with everybody sure she is bluffing so that the claim exerts no leverage, while maneuvering the country into its current position — where the no-deal exit she fears and hasn’t prepared for might happen by accident. You hold the gun to your own head to demand concessions, everybody laughs, then you unintentionally pull the trigger.

This catalogue of errors has brought the country to the present impasse. Right now, there’s no good answer. But some next steps would be worse than others.

No deal is probably the worst outcome of all — not because it had to be, but because it’s an enormous undertaking and the country isn’t in any sense ready. (How unprepared, you ask? With 15 days to go, nobody thinks it will actually happen, and nobody knows what would happen if it did.)

A short delay is better than just crashing out, but would resolve nothing, as May hoarsely noted earlier this week. It wouldn’t leave time for adequate no-deal preparations. And even if the EU were willing to revise the withdrawal agreement, which it insists it is not, any deal negotiated under these circumstances will yield an outcome that even a Brexiteer should recognize as inferior to Remain — that is, status as a de facto colony in the EU periphery, with fewer economic benefits than now and less, not more, political autonomy. A short delay would merely prolong the agony.

A longer delay with the express purpose of calling a second referendum and/or a general election is much more attractive, because it would give time for reflection and a fundamental rethink. At some point the decision to proceed with Brexit or cancel it altogether ought to be grounded in a new and better-informed popular mandate. Nonetheless, this fixed-delay approach, even given more time, suffers from potentially lethal drawbacks.

First, the clock would still be ticking down to a no-deal exit, leaving Britain in much the same negotiating stranglehold as now. Second, the EU would have to agree to any such extension. The longer the requested delay, the more likely it would be to refuse. In any event, the EU would set conditions: Like the notorious backstop, these would further tilt the subsequent bargaining and narrow the U.K.’s options. Third, even now, the outcome of a second referendum shouldn’t be taken for granted — and, hard as this might be to believe, a general election could install a government that’s even more clueless than May’s.

That leaves a very unpalatable conclusion: The U.K. can revoke Article 50 unilaterally, and should do so while it still has the option. With or without a general election, with or without a second referendum, the country needs to get itself out from under the thumb of the EU — and its only hope of doing that is to stay, until further notice, in the EU. Believe me, I see the paradox, which gives me no joy. Also, I don’t underestimate the righteous anger of Brexit supporters if the Remain majority in Parliament finally asserts itself and votes to set aside the first referendum result. The course I’m recommending would be a brutal further setback to the standing of Parliament in the country.

But to call it a betrayal would be wrong. The betrayal has already happened — when Cameron and then May suspended their own best judgment and started guiding the country, step by bungled step, to this pitiful result, and when the Remain majority in Parliament chose to let it happen. It’s time to repent, own up to this abject failure of planning and strategy, and cut the nation’s losses.

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

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic.

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