Getting From Here to Brexit

They can agree the U.K. will leave.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Nobody said quitting the European Union would be easy. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has declared that "Brexit means Brexit," but Britain still hasn't decided what it wants. There's not much clarity in the rest of the EU, either. As a Bloomberg survey of officials across the union makes clear, its 27 other members have their own ideas about how they want Brexit to play out and where to draw red lines.

This process is going to take time -- longer than the two years the Article 50 exit process provides.

Britain's dithering since its Brexit referendum has been widely noted, but clarity in London may not speed things up much, given the "complex patchwork of priorities" among EU policy makers that the Bloomberg survey found. Officials in Germany, Portugal, the Czech Republic and other countries insist that to be granted full access to Europe's single market, the U.K. would have to accept the EU's rules on free movement of workers. That's a condition Britain's government would find hard to accept.

A few of the other EU countries might be less insistent on free movement, but all have axes to grind: contributions to the EU budget, the City of London's rights and obligations, Ireland's border with Northern Ireland, sovereignty over Gibraltar, fisheries, farming, shipping, power plant subsidies, access to universities, the rights of Britons living in the EU, the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, and on and on.

QuickTake Brexit

Many EU governments want Britain to clarify its position -- and they have a point. The U.K. can't expect to be treated as a fully committed member of the union any longer. Its status as a soon-to-be non-member should be formally recognized without further delay. But two years from that point will not be time enough to settle on the design of a long-term relationship.

The way forward is to unlink those two things: First, exit. Later, settle on a long-term relationship. And in between, conduct a transition on no fixed timetable that temporarily preserves most of the rights and reciprocal obligations of EU membership. To be sure, this approach wouldn't bridge the gaps between Britain and the EU-27, or make an extraordinarily complex separation any simpler. But it would at least allow for a more orderly discussion, which is in everybody's interests.

Equally important, it would allow for clarity on the key point, and soon. Britain and Europe can agree that Britain will quit the EU in short order, without rushing a negotiation that will take time to get right.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.