An attendee holds a placard reading ‘The Best Brexit Deal’ behind Theresa May, U.K. prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, during a campaign event in Twickenham, London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

May’s Brexit Deal Is Not the Answer

(The Bloomberg View) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May announced Wednesday that she has secured her cabinet’s support for her plan to leave the European Union. The choice now, she said, is her deal, “or leave with no deal, or no Brexit at all.” Put that way, the right choice — the only sane choice — is more obvious than she perhaps intended: no Brexit at all.

The terms of May’s deal prove the folly of the whole endeavor. Support for Brexit in the referendum of 2016 was narrow; for months, emerging details about what quitting the EU would mean have been changing minds. May and her cabinet have kept going regardless. This sleepwalking to disaster needs to end. Parliament should reject the plan, and, with or without May as prime minister, press for a second referendum to reverse this historic error.

Few dispute that May’s deal would damage the economy, in particular by removing services (by far the country’s biggest economic sector) from Europe’s single market. It would also burden businesses of all kinds with persistent uncertainty, by leaving longer-term trading arrangements with Europe unsettled. To justify these and other losses, Brexit supporters had hoped for greater control over the country’s affairs — but the deal provides the opposite. Even limited membership of the single market, which the agreement includes, involves EU control across a wide range of policy — and after March next year, Britain would lose its say in what those policies should be.

Diminished economic prospects and diminished sovereignty: The combination enshrined in May’s draft agreement looks indefensible. It’s no longer just Remainers who think that staying in the EU would be better than this. Many Brexiters agree.

The toxic compromise that May has extracted from Europe’s negotiators has only one justification — that it’s better than no deal at all. To be sure, avoiding the calamity of a chaotic no-deal Brexit next March is essential. But this can be done without May’s plan, if Britain’s government steels itself to admit that Brexit was an error, and Europe plays its part in allowing that mistake to be corrected.

If Parliament rejects the plan — as it should, and as it seems likely to — May or her successor ought to declare Brexit a failure and call a second referendum to confirm the country’s wish to remain in the union. Crucially, Europe’s leaders would then need to say that they’d welcome this development, that they’d grant the time it would require, and that they’d impose no hard Brexit on schedule next March. Even if it were too late to prevent the U.K. formally exiting at that point, transitional arrangements could be made to ensure no interruption to trade, pending the U.K.’s resumption of membership.

Granted, rejecting May’s plan involves risk. There’d be further delay and uncertainty; the Tory government might fall; new elections might install a Labour government whose views on Brexit aren’t clear; and referendums, as the Brexit farce has proved, don’t always go as expected. Even so, the main point stands: May’s universally disliked plan is not the only way to avoid a chaotic Brexit. As the prime minister herself said, there’s another option.   

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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