Editorial Board

Britain's Inexcusable Dithering Over Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May needs a plan. Now.

Britain's government needs to start governing.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The Brexit deadline of March 2019 creeps ever closer, and exit talks are under way -- but Britain’s government still doesn’t know what it wants. This failure to set a clear goal, much less devise a strategy for achieving it, isn’t all that surprising, given the political mess caused by Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call an early election. It’s nonetheless inexcusable.

May’s sense of urgency, if any, did not preclude a summer vacation. It’s to be hoped she returns to London energized by sober reflection and a sense of impending disaster -- because that’s what a so-called cliff-edge Brexit would be for her country, and each passing week makes it more likely.

The right goal has been clear for months. The U.K. needs a transitional exit deal that will temporarily keep most of its existing rights and obligations as a member of the European Union in place. The terms of a lasting settlement will take far longer to negotiate than the 2019 deadline allows. The alternative to a short-term deal is to crash out of the EU with no agreement at all, and that would be an economic calamity for the U.K. 

For weeks, May’s cabinet was divided over the very idea of a transitional arrangement. Lately, it seems, views have converged somewhat. But the government still hasn't decided what form any such deal should take -- including how long it would last, and which aspects of the U.K.-EU relationship would be temporarily kept in place. The commitment to free movement of people is especially contentious. 

The whole point of a temporary arrangement is to cut through those disputes, leaving them to be addressed after, not before, March 2019. Everything that matters -- including free movement -- should be allowed to stand. And Britain should not be imposing deadlines for getting to a long-term settlement. The EU might want to speed the process along, but the U.K. should be willing to take as long as necessary.

Granted, this approach will arouse suspicions in the U.K. that it’s a way to overthrow the referendum result and avoid Brexit altogether -- but such fears (unfortunately) are exaggerated. As a non-member of the union with almost all of the obligations and no say in future EU decisions, the U.K.’s position would be politically unsustainable. That’s a feature, not a bug: It tells the skeptics that the transitional deal will be just that -- transitional. And the Article 50 process guarantees that once you quit, you can’t slide back in; you have to apply again from scratch.

Europe’s agreement to this approach cannot be taken for granted. Make no mistake: Even a transitional deal where nothing much changes for now will be hard to negotiate. But there’s no chance of reaching that goal if the U.K. government doesn’t embrace it, say what it means, make the case to voters, and press Europe to go along.

It’s more than a year since Britain voted to leave the EU. The government is still in disarray. The dithering has to stop.

    --Editors: Clive Crook, Mary Duenwald.

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

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