Brexit

The Harder Brexit Gets, the More Necessary It Seems

The costs of the split in 2019 will be high -- but it might be now or never.

Waiting will only make it more painful.

Photographer: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Nobody was surprised that the European Union's leaders refused to move the Brexit talks forward at last week's summit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk talked of progress and suggested there'd be more at the next gathering in December, but this speck of encouragement shouldn't obscure the bigger picture. The process is moving too slowly, and with each passing week, the chances of a chaotic U.K. departure from the EU grow.

The closer this calamity comes into view, the more certain it seems that Britain has miscalculated -- and the more I’m coming round to the view that the U.K. was right to want a divorce.

In the debate about Britain and Europe, I've been a reluctant Remainer. The U.K. has been an ill-fitting member of the EU all along. As the union integrates further over the coming years -- which it probably must, if it's to succeed -- Britain's discomfort was bound to grow. The U.K. did need a fundamentally new relationship with the rest of the EU.

But the government should have worked to create this new status -- a kind of associate membership -- from a position of strength inside the union. Its approach to the creation of the euro could have been the model: Be a nuisance, refuse to go along, and win special dispensation. Instead, by giving notice to quit the union altogether, on an EU-determined timetable, the U.K. surrendered most of its bargaining power. That huge tactical error is going to cost.

The stalemate in the exit negotiations is proof. At the same time, though, it draws attention to those very aspects of the European project that most concern so many Brits -- not just the 52 percent who voted to quit (despite endless dire warnings) but also an unknown number of reluctant Remainers like myself.

The difficulty of disentangling EU law from U.K. law, and putting the U.K.'s international commitments back on a sovereign-country basis, is becoming all too clear. The threat of enormous disruption is real. Yet the scale and complexity of this task also show how deeply and broadly the EU has penetrated British governance. Few would argue that Europe's system of democratic accountability has developed to a commensurate degree. So the harder it is to exit, the more glaring the union's "democratic deficit" seems.

For many British commentators, in fact, the coming disruption means this was never a matter of weighing long-term pros and cons of EU membership: There was no real choice, in their view, except to remain. But that draws attention to another problem. The irrevocability of EU membership was not previously advertised. Until recently, Article 50 in the European treaties was supposed to affirm that participation in the project was voluntary, contingent and subject to popular consent. Now it's portrayed by Remainers as a kind of suicide clause.  

Remember that the European Union is a work in progress. "Ever closer union" remains a guiding principle, and, with the creation of the euro, deeper integration has become a practical necessity as well. It's happening -- haltingly, messily, and leading in the end who knows where. But if quitting the EU now is hard, how much harder will it be in ten years, or 20? And by then, what kind of union will the EU be?

Thus, on the one hand, the costs of Brexit in 2019 will be high; on the other, it might be now or never.

The current stalemate, in addition, has arisen partly by EU design -- which undercuts Remainers in another way. Europe's chief negotiator has a mandate to achieve "sufficient progress" on the exit payment, the status of EU citizens in the U.K., and the Northern Irish border before moving to discuss the future relationship. This makes a deal much harder to strike. Complex talks succeed through bargains made in parallel across the full range of issues in contention -- not in rigid sequence, with the hardest questions up front.

Presumably this staging was deliberate: It's taken for granted that the EU wants to punish the U.K. for deciding to quit, partly to teach other restless members to behave, and partly because Britain just has it coming. I see the reason in such thinking -- but it doesn't advance the EU's larger purpose of a closer union based on popular consent. You can strengthen obedience by making examples and threatening reprisals, but you don't build loyalty that way, and loyalty is what the EU most sorely lacks.

The EU should be more confident about its prospects with or without the U.K. If it believes in the strength of its union, and in the power of the four freedoms that the U.K. is reluctant to accept in full, then it should expect Britain to regret departing even if granted terms that cause the minimum disruption to trade and commerce. The EU should believe that the U.K. will see the error of its ways in time, even if the exit goes well. Until then, the EU would surely be better off having a prosperous friend, trading partner and military ally just off its coast, rather than a beaten and resentful enemy.

Britain's tactical choices have been terrible and it faces severe consequences. But, judging by this process so far, the EU isn't much better at seeing where its interests really lie.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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