Don’t Call May’s Brexit a Compromise

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Few if any supporters of the Brexit agreement that U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has struck with the European Union actually like it. Most would prefer Britain to stay in the EU. Others wanted the opposite — a so-called clean Brexit — but think May’s deal is the best that can be done. These disappointed Leavers and Remainers agree with May that her deal is a painful but necessary compromise.

Gideon Rachman offers a forthright defense of this position in the Financial Times. He argues that the priority now must be to restore some semblance of political order and stability in Britain — something that neither a sudden-stop no-deal Brexit nor a second attempt to settle the matter by referendum could achieve. He adds: “The fact that the hardliners on both sides of the debate are outraged suggests that Mrs May has found a middle ground that upsets zealots, but has the potential to command sullen assent from the muddled middle.” 

This is wrong. You don’t need to be a zealot to oppose this deal. Level-headed Brexiteers (such as Dominic Raab, a minister who worked on the deal but resigned in protest over its final form) and consensus-seeking Remainers (such as Jo Johnson, another minister who quit because of the agreement) aren’t unthinking hardliners. Neither am I, for that matter. Consider me a dedicated anti-zealot, annoyingly committed to seeing both sides of any argument — and when it comes to Britain and Europe, a reluctant Remainer. Nonetheless I see May’s deal not as a painful yet necessary compromise, but as an abject failure of leadership that it is not too late to correct.

The crucial point is straightforward. Britain needed to seek a compromise that traded off degrees of access to Europe’s single market against degrees of effective sovereignty and democratic accountability. Remaining in the EU involves close-to-frictionless trade with the other members combined with seriously diminished democratic self-government. A clean Brexit, leaving the U.K.’s relationship with Europe akin to Canada’s with the U.S., involves short- and possibly long-term economic losses combined with a stronger form of self-government.

Reasonable people can disagree about where to be on that spectrum. A deal of the form May first had in mind — a middle point between a narrow free-trade agreement and full access to the single market — could well have worked. But the final form of May’s exit agreement finds no such point of balance.

Compared with remaining in the EU, it entails substantial economic losses and diminished, not enhanced, democratic accountability. The only significant policy question over which Britain gains new control is immigration. On almost every other issue where the EU has competence, Britain, thanks to the so-called backstop on Northern Ireland, will be indefinitely hemmed in –- while losing any say in what the EU chooses to do. On a scrupulously unzealous assessment, this is less self-government than Britain currently has as a member of the EU. It isn’t a compromise, it’s a capitulation.

Some commentators, I think, fail to see this because they set the value of self-government and democratic accountability at close to zero. This popular school of thought says sovereignty is largely a myth: In the modern world, it’s an illusion to believe that countries can govern themselves. From this point of view, May’s deal can indeed be seen as a kind of compromise, because it splits the difference between Remain and a hard Brexit on the only thing that counts: economic consequences.

But if you think that policymakers should be held accountable to citizens, and that questions of sovereignty therefore do matter, what you see in May’s deal is not, “On the one hand we get this, on the other we give up that,” but rather, “On the one hand we lose this, on the other we also lose that.”

Granted, there’s one more way to see the deal as a compromise. It’s a compromise in the sense that if a mugger puts a gun in my face, I will compromise and hand over my wallet. If any form of Brexit was sure to be grim for the U.K., there’s still something to be said for choosing the least bad option. It might therefore make sense to say, “This so-called compromise is actually a humiliating defeat and everybody hates it, but Britain has no other choice. It’s really just a matter of knowing when you’re beaten.”

This formulation would seem to be only a slight paraphrase of May’s position as she asks the country for support. True, her astonishing lack of preparation for leaving without a deal left the U.K. all but helpless as the EU’s negotiators laid out their demands. Britain, in effect, asked to be mugged. Even so, the country is not without choices.

The option to Remain is not dead yet. It’s telling, or ought to be, that many people who wanted and still would like Brexit — moderates as well as extremists — see Remain as better than May’s deal. In other words, offered this deal or Remain, the country would very probably choose Remain. This choice is to be ruled out because everybody is tired and May wants to change the subject? The question is far too important for that.

Getting there wouldn’t be easy, that’s for sure. It would probably need a new prime minister, a new government and another referendum. Europe would need to give Britain space to rethink, which it might well be disinclined to do. If every other avenue was blocked, a no-deal Brexit could easily follow by default. But allow me to say, calmly and open-mindedly, that as chaotic and disruptive as that would be, it might be preferable to the dismal, resentful, endlessly contested future May is proposing.

But for now it’s a risk very much worth running. Parliament should vote her deal down.

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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