The Brexit talks have started, and there’s little sign yet of an intelligible U.K. strategy. All is disarray.
The shambles makes two bad possible outcomes more likely. One is that the U.K. will crash out of the European Union in 2019 with no agreement in place. This would cause enormous economic disruption — damage that would take years to repair.
The other bad possibility, if the government continues to flail while the two-year deadline advances, is that public opinion will wobble. A second referendum might be called, and last year’s decision to quit might be reversed. I used to think this scenario extremely unlikely. Now I think it’s merely improbable, and support for it is on the rise (though I’m unsure whether backing from Tony Blair, Britain’s unpopular former prime minister, is helping).
You might be wondering, what would be so bad about revisiting the decision to quit?
To begin with, don’t assume a second referendum would go the other way. Britain’s Remainers seem to take it for granted that next time common sense will prevail. The majority for quitting in last year’s vote was narrow, but remember that Leave won despite an enormous and sustained preponderance of advice from the government, from economists of all stripes, and from elite opinion generally. There’s a reason Britain has always been the odd man out in the EU: Popular disquiet at the U.K.’s place in an ever-integrating Europe runs deep.
Also don’t take for granted that Britain would be allowed to change its mind. The legality of revoking the Article 50 notice is disputed. The EU says this cannot be done unilaterally. Before Britain was let back in, it might be asked to pay a price for its impudence. (Maybe that would give rise to demands for a third referendum.) Efforts to reverse last year’s vote could simply run out the clock and make the first bad outcome — crashing out of the union with no deal — more likely.
Isn’t this risk worth running for the chance to correct a historic error — if that’s what it was? I doubt it. Suppose a second referendum was called and the result was Remain; suppose the EU said, “Great, glad to have you back.” Reversing Britain’s decision under these circumstances — out of fear, to avert looming chaos — wouldn’t reconcile the country to its European future. This cringing submission would raise instinctive euro-skepticism to new extremes and divide the U.K. even more bitterly.
Gideon Rachman writes in the Financial Times that it would be a national humiliation. True. It would surpass the Suez Crisis in 1956 and the country’s surrender to trade-union militancy in the 1970s — crushing setbacks with far-reaching political consequences. If there were ever a case of “be careful what you wish for,” this is it.
Where I disagree with Rachman is that, if I understand him correctly, he recommends this humiliation as the best course of action. All Britain’s options right now are humiliating, he believes, so this is no basis for rejection. On the plus side, humiliation can be good for you (think Germany after 1945). He notes that many Europeans think Britain could stand to be taken down a peg or two.
No doubt. On the whole, though, I think national humiliations are best kept to a minimum. In this case, a feasible, non-humiliating and mutually advantageous alternative is available.
To avoid any crashing out of the union in 2019, Britain and the EU need a transitional agreement: Britain would be out of the EU, with no say in its future direction, but would retain essentially all the rights and obligations of membership while a permanent arrangement is worked out. That would take as long as it takes — no more pressure of a stupid deadline. And this longer-term arrangement would in turn be a liberal, trade-promoting accord between close friends and allies, recognizing Britain’s desire to be, and remain, a sovereign state.
It’s important to understand that this can be done — a point that gets remarkably little attention. It isn’t asking the impossible, and it isn’t asking anything that a self-confident EU needs to oppose. But this good outcome can’t come about by accident. Both parties to the negotiations will have to pursue it deliberately. That’s the problem.
There’s too little sign of purpose or foresight on either side. Britain is paralyzed by political division. Government support for the transition model does seem to be inching higher, but May still gives every impression of making things up as she goes along — and, crucially, she isn’t preparing Brexit supporters to be patient. Other EU governments, for the most part, are just standing to one side, content to let Britain stew. They have less to lose in this, to be sure — but that doesn’t justify letting the train wreck happen.
Brexit doesn’t need to be a disaster, and avoiding the worst doesn’t require superhuman political talent. It just requires better leaders than Britain and Europe seem to have.