May struggles to break Brexit deadlock
With the U.K.’s Brexit deadline only days away and Parliament unable to agree on how Britain should leave the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May stunned members of her Conservative Party this week by seeking to forge a “softer Brexit” deal with opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. “I am taking action to break the logjam,” May said, after Parliament voted for a third time to reject the divorce deal she negotiated with the EU and shot down a series of alternate Brexit plans proposed by lawmakers. (See Best Columns: Europe.) If Parliament fails to approve any agreement with the EU, Britain will crash out of the bloc on April 12. Economists, business leaders, and politicians from all parties have warned that the sudden imposition of trade barriers between the U.K. and Europe in a “no deal” exit would be economically calamitous.
May’s deal has repeatedly flopped in Parliament because of opposition from hard-line pro-Brexit Conservatives, who don’t like that it keeps the U.K. closely linked to the EU until at least 2020. But any deal that May strikes with Corbyn—who is a left-wing critic of the EU but leads a party that is staunchly pro-European—will likely be “softer” than her existing plan, possibly keeping the U.K. permanently bound by European regulations and trade rules over which it would have no say. EU officials have said that the U.K. must pass a Brexit deal by April 12, quit the bloc on that date, or request a lengthy departure delay, possibly not leaving until March 2020.
What the columnists said
Britain is “determined to commit economic suicide,” said Thomas Friedman in The New York Times, it just can’t “agree on how to kill itself.” Parliament keeps rejecting Brexit plans in the belief that a “pain-free exit” is possible. It’s not: Right now, the U.K. sends 40 percent of its exports tariff free to the EU. Quitting was always going to hurt. And unless U.K. politicians start cooperating “with one another and with reality,” the country is in for “some serious economic pain.”
Don’t hold your breath waiting for a grand bargain, said Ian Dunt in The Washington Post. Britain’s two main parties have become too ideologically rigid for that to happen. If a May-Corbyn deal doesn’t include a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership—as demanded by many Labour supporters—Corbyn will lose a chunk of his party. If it includes a soft Brexit, those pro-referendum types “still won’t support it, and May loses most of her own party in the bargain.” The math of any Brexit majority is hard to imagine.
“No good compromise exists,” said Clive Crook in Bloomberg.com. The idea of a soft Brexit is to keep some of the economic benefits of EU membership while retrieving political sovereignty in areas such as justice and home affairs. But that would also make the U.K. “a powerless rule taker,” and anti-EU anger would only grow. Britain has two workable choices: stay in the EU and try to reform the bloc from within, or get all the way out. “Nothing in between will stick.” ■