The root of the Brexit crisis is not, as you might think, the failure of the hard-Brexit Tories to compromise. Rather, it’s that no good compromise exists. For three years Britain’s politicians have refused to face this, arguing endlessly and pointlessly about how to split the difference between Remain and Leave, imagining they can find a palatable soft Brexit. The underlying problem is that there’s simply no such thing.
In the end, with or without a further extension of the Brexit deadline, MPs might end up splitting the difference after all. It’s still possible they’ll vote for Prime Minister Theresa May’s muddled and three-times-rejected withdrawal agreement (involving a financial settlement, transitional arrangements, and steps to avoid reintroducing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland). On Tuesday, the prime minister said she’d seek the Labour Party’s help in adjusting the nonbinding political declaration that goes with the deal, in an effort to get Parliament’s backing.
If MPs do finally go along, they’ll soon find that their compromise doesn’t work, and that Britain hates its new relationship with the European Union even more than the old one.
Deep down, most of the country’s politicians understand this, I suspect, but can’t bring themselves to confront the implications. Their preference for denial explains why, after years of agonizing, and just nine days away from a chaotic unplanned exit, the House of Commons has not only rejected May’s deal over and over, but has also just said no to 12 other motions positing a way out of the mess.
It’s telling that the compromises that came closest to passing in two rounds of so-called indicative votes — such as the idea of attaching a permanent customs union to May’s plan — are disliked even by the people sponsoring them. The House of Commons is divided between committed Leavers and Remainers, each side convinced that the other is wholly wrong. Most of the people calling for compromise are Remainers, but their goal is not to move Britain to an arrangement the country would like better than the one it has; it’s to lessen the damage they think will be done when Britain stupidly quits.
The instinct to compromise is certainly valuable. In a democracy where people disagree about big questions — such as whether to remain part of an emerging United States of Europe — it’s right to look for a middle way that most can live with. The mistake is to assume that a workable compromise is always there to be found. Once in a while, a hard choice cannot be finessed: It just has to be made, and the consequences lived with. This is such a case.
Consider what many see as an appealingly soft Brexit: so-called Norway-plus, or Common Market 2.0. The idea is to preserve the economic benefits of EU membership by remaining a member of Europe’s single market and customs union, while retrieving some political sovereignty by stepping away from EU integration in areas such as justice and home affairs.
Nick Boles, one of the plan’s authors, stepped down as a Conservative MP on Monday when the Commons again rejected this approach. “I have given everything to an attempt to find a compromise that can take this country out of the European Union while maintaining our economic strength and our political cohesion,” he said. “I have failed chiefly because my party refuses to compromise.”
The Boles plan could have been a workable temporary arrangement. It might have been a good long-term plan, as well, if Europe would allow single-market members that aren’t part of the EU a full say in developing the market’s rules. But Europe won’t countenance that. (For some reason, advocates of Norway-plus don’t seem to mind.) The proposed arrangement would therefore leave the U.K. as a powerless rule-taker across a wide and ever-widening span of trade and economic policy.
Recall that support for Brexit comes chiefly from resentment at Britain’s lack of control over the policies that affect it. Norway-plus would make that problem vastly worse. Norway has a looser form of association than the one proposed in the Boles plan (it isn’t a member of the EU’s customs union), yet much of the country’s politics is devoted to butting heads with the EU over successive policy innovations over which it has no say.
The idea that a Boles-style compromise, in concert with an unreformed EU, could be the long-term basis of a satisfactory Brexit is ridiculous. I’ve seen no serious attempt to defend the claim. All one can say for the plan is that it would avoid the short-term disruption that Brexit would otherwise cause — at the cost of building a new wave of anti-EU sentiment and, in due course, demands for Brexit 2.0.
One day Europe might be willing to contemplate a more flexible structure for its project of political integration. Until then, Britain has two workable choices. It can stay and make the best of it, while continuing to press for reform from within. Or it can leave, meaning all the way out, and negotiate a comprehensive free-trade agreement of the kind that Canada has with the U.S. — one that treats both parties as sovereign nations, and does not condemn the smaller economy to formally entrenched second-class status. Nothing in-between will stick.
May’s divided government committed itself to Leave without really believing in it, then failed to plan for that second course — an unforgivable mistake. Parliament’s Remainers failed the country too, and are still failing, by supporting broken compromises that they know will sooner or later collapse, instead of saying what they think and championing the outcome they believe is best for the country.
The result could hardly be worse. Three years in, Britain’s politicians are flailing helplessly. A lasting resolution is nowhere in sight. In fact, the Brexit trauma may be only just getting started.
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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