It’s time for the EU to throw Bri­tain a life­line

Woonsocket Call - - OPINION - The fol­low­ing ed­i­to­rial ap­pears on Bloomberg Opin­ion:

Bri­tain’s Prime Min­is­ter, Theresa May, is no longer in con­trol of events. The Brexit with­drawal agree­ment she’s cur­rently de­fend­ing in Par­lia­ment has, with rea­son, been sav­aged by all sides and seems likely to be re­jected in the vote planned for next week. Al­ready, thoughts are turn­ing to Plan B.

The best course is ev­i­dent: a se­cond ref­er­en­dum, one that would let Bri­tain choose more wisely now that the costs of Brexit are bet­ter un­der­stood. But the path back to san­ity is by no means straight­for­ward, and one ob­sta­cle in par­tic­u­lar needs to be re­moved. The Euro­pean Union should make clear that the de­ci­sion to quit the EU can be re­versed.

There was never a good way for May to de­liver the Brexit that the coun­try voted for in 2016. Still, the deal she con­cluded with the EU was worse than al­most any­body – Leavers and Re­main­ers alike – had ex­pected. It threat­ens to leave Bri­tain with most of the obli­ga­tions of EU mem­ber­ship and few of its priv­i­leges; it sep­a­rates North­ern Ire­land from the rest of the U.K. in a kind of eco­nomic an­nex­a­tion; and it fails to pro­vide an exit clause, a fu­ture Ar­ti­cle 50, by which Bri­tain might end these ar­range­ments.

Mervyn King, for­mer gov­er­nor of the Bank of Eng­land, is not ex­ag­ger­at­ing when he calls these terms a be­trayal of Bri­tain. The EU’s lead­ers charged their ne­go­tia­tors to drive a hard bar­gain, which they did, and then some. So hard, in fact, that Bri­tain’s vot­ers seem un­likely to swal­low it. Therein lies the op­por­tu­nity to sal­vage some­thing from this wreck­age. A “peo­ple’s vote” to re­verse the Brexit de­ci­sion looks in­creas­ingly pos­si­ble – but it re­quires three main things.

First, the U.K. gov­ern­ment must ei­ther ad­vo­cate it or let it hap­pen. May and her per­pet­u­ally di­vided Cab­i­net may be un­able to re­verse them­selves on this, as she’s re­peat­edly said there’ll be no se­cond vote. Thank­fully, this might not mat­ter. In one of sev­eral hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feats the prime min­is­ter suf­fered this week, the House of Commons as­serted the right to vote on al­ter­na­tive pro­pos­als if MPs vote down her plan.

Se­cond, the EU needs to re­move sev­eral pro­ce­dural ob­sta­cles. In par­tic­u­lar, its lead­ers need to say that if Bri­tain re­vokes its Ar­ti­cle 50 no­ti­fi­ca­tion of with­drawal – as it would have to, to give time for a se­cond ref­er­en­dum – the EU will not ob­ject. Up to now, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and Coun­cil have ar­gued be­fore the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice that the re­vo­ca­tion would re­quire the unan­i­mous as­sent of the other EU mem­bers. This week, in a boost to Re­main­ers, the ad­vo­cate gen­eral of the ECJ said this was not so, though the guid­ance is not bind­ing on the court. Re­gard­less of the ECJ’s rul­ing, Europe’s lead­ers should af­firm that they’ll let Bri­tain re­voke its no­tice to quit.

Third, the EU’s lead­ers should re­sist the un­der­stand­able temp­ta­tion to drive an­other hard bar­gain, this time over get­ting Brexit re­versed. They should say that Europe wants the U.K. to re­main, and that it can do so fol­low­ing a se­cond ref­er­en­dum on the same terms as be­fore – with no obli­ga­tion to join the sin­gle cur­rency, with its other opt-outs pre­served, and with no change to the pre­vail­ing fi­nan­cial terms.

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