A Cure for Brexit Paralysis

Once more, with feeling.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

The European Union says it wants clarity on whether U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is serious in her pledge that “Brexit means Brexit.” That clarity would be good for Britain as well as the rest of Europe, and there’s a simple way to get it: Extend the two-year deadline triggered by formal notification of the decision to leave the bloc.

As things stand, Article 50 of the EU treaty allows for two years of negotiations once Britain has formally declared that it’s leaving. This isn’t long enough: Neither side is ready and there’s far too much to discuss. Britain is in no hurry to start the process -- the early part of next year is being discussed -- and it controls the timing. Yet European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker both insist that talks about Britain’s future relationship with the bloc cannot start until Article 50 is invoked.

The answer is to invoke Article 50 swiftly but drop the arbitrary two-year deadline for concluding the talks.

Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Quit the EU

This would give both sides something they want. Europe would get the clarity it’s demanding: Britain is leaving and can be formally recognized as a soon-to-be non-member. And Britain would get the time it will need to arrange an orderly transition to new trading arrangements with the EU and rest of the world.

To be sure, each side would also lose something. Europe would give up some bargaining power: It wouldn’t be able to use the two-year deadline as an implicit threat to bounce Britain into a harsh settlement. And Britain would lose the option of dithering indefinitely over whether it’s really in or out. On balance, though, both sides would be better off with clarity on “in or out” combined with adequate time to negotiate an orderly and friendly separation.

David Davis, the minister in charge of Brexit, has reportedly hired less than half of the 250 staff designated for his new department. Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, employs fewer than 100 of the estimated 1,000 trade-policy experts he’ll need. A further complication is elections in France and Germany next year. Until those are out of the way, Britain doesn’t know who will be representing the EU’s two most powerful members -- and the results may change the course of the talks, with the Article 50 clock, if started by then, rapidly running down.

It’s fair to say that Britain should have considered these difficulties before voting to quit. But it’s also fair to say that Article 50, which nobody ever expected to be used, was ill-designed and should not be seen as a sacred text. Formally, in any case, it allows for the two-year deadline to be extended.

The point now, one hopes, is not to punish the U.K. for voting the way it did, but to get the best possible outcome for all concerned. This requires a cooperative and methodical process, not an angry contest for short-term advantage. The current impasse, which gives Britain control over when to start the exit talks but none over when they stop, is a formula for extended paralysis and pointless dispute. Europe can change the formula, and should.

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