Editorial Board

What Europe Should Do About Britain

Its leaders should turn their attention from punishment to damage control.

What happens in Brussels won't stay there.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Leaders of the European Union are allowed a moment of joy at the outcome of the U.K. election. Britain's voters have just handed the Conservative Party, author of the country's Brexit disaster, its head. But the EU shouldn't let the cosmic justice of this outcome cloud their judgment about where their own interests lie.

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The Brexit decision is unlikely to be reversed, and at this point EU leaders would rather move on anyway. The best outcome for them is an orderly separation that leaves economic links as intact as possible -- and the best way to get that result is to be magnanimous in victory.

To be sure, the EU wants to discourage other restless countries from imagining life outside the union. On that score, its leaders can relax. Brexit has crushed one British prime minister and crippled another, paralyzed the government, stunned investors, and turned the U.K. into a political war zone. However smooth the separation from here on, the lesson for others so inclined is: Don't even think about it.

Piling on at this point might even undo some of the EU's strategic gain. It could unite Britain in hostility to Europe, rather than in regret of its decision to quit. Also, euroskeptics elsewhere in the union might be cowed, but they wouldn't be reconciled -- and winning the hearts and minds of its citizens should be Europe's larger goal.

Magnanimity in victory means two main things.

First, allow some flexibility on the timing and sequence of the Brexit talks. Europe is impatient to get them started, and has fixed ideas about how they should proceed, but the chaos in Westminster is bound to slow things down. So far as possible, Europe's leaders should be willing to accommodate this. It becomes all the more important to avoid procedural squabbles.

Second, look beyond the Brexit terms and come forward with a proposal for a productive future relationship with the U.K. Up to now, the EU has said, in effect: This is your mess, and it's up to you to sort it out. That's understandable, but Britain may now be literally incapable of doing so. If the EU chooses to stand there and watch, the likely outcome is no agreement, a disorderly exit as the clock on talks runs down, maximum economic dislocation, and years of bitter recrimination all around -- terrible for the U.K., but no picnic for the EU, either.

No further effort is needed on Europe's part to show Britain the error of its ways. For its own sake, the union needs to turn its attention from punishment to damage control.

    --Editors: Clive Crook, Michael Newman.

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

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