Britain’s holiday from history was supposed to end this week. After three years of bitter debate, Prime Minister Theresa May hoped Parliament would back the agreement for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union that she painstakingly negotiated over the past 18 months. On Tuesday, however, Parliament voted 2-to-1 against her deal, a humiliating defeat that leaves the future of Britain’s relationship with Europe as unsettled as ever.
The only real option is a do-over -- a second referendum, this time with a clear sense of what the option of leaving entails. Polls indicate growing support for remaining in the EU, though the margins are hardly decisive. The idea that another popular vote is a subversion of democracy, as May has repeatedly claimed, ignores the reality that people have the right to change their mind. In fact, that’s what real democracy is all about.
The fatal flaw of May’s original strategy wasn’t so much the terms of her deal but how she got there. When her predecessor foolishly put the question of Britain’s EU membership up for a referendum in 2016, the government didn’t prepare for the possibility that people would vote to leave. Yet false promises of the huge financial windfall that would follow if London took back control from Brussels persuaded a narrow majority to vote for Britain to leave Europe.
While the question of leaving was easy to state, leaving itself would prove difficult to do. For more than 40 years, Britain had aligned much of its economy and regulatory framework with the rest of the EU, which operated as a single market internally and a single trading partner externally. Pulling out of the EU meant disentangling the British economy from Europe and forging new trade relationships with all other countries.
None of this would be easy. Yet none of these difficulties were much discussed during the referendum debate in 2016. After the vote to leave, May -- herself a reluctant Remainer -- took the reins of power by declaring “Brexit means Brexit,” a clever slogan that temporarily united her Conservative Party behind her but failed to provide any clear indication of what Brexit, in fact, would entail.
That question has dominated British politics and London’s relations with Europe ever since. The problem for May was that no matter how hard she tried, there was no answer that could at once satisfy her own party and command agreement from Europe. A close economic relationship with Europe -- whether as a continuing member of the EU single market or as part of its customs union -- was rejected by her party’s many Brexiteers. Yet a looser relationship that would leave Britain free to chart its own trading course with Europe and other countries stumbled over Brussels’ insistence that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remain open -- for fear that a hard border between the two would end the hard-won peace agreed to in 1998.
Rather than trying to resolve this conundrum by seeking a large national consensus across all political parties, May entered negotiations with Europe with no clear idea of what she could sell at home. Instead she hoped to use the deadline of Britain’s exit from the EU, set for March 29, to force Parliament to accept any deal she could negotiate with Brussels. That gambit failed. Spectacularly. She lost Tuesday’s vote by 230 votes, the largest defeat for a sitting government in history.
May’s failure means Britain is now back to square one. Parliament, and the country at large, remain deeply divided. The one thing most people, including a majority in Parliament, can agree on is that Britain must not crash out of the European Union in 10 weeks without a deal. The resulting chaos would lead to shortages of food, fuel, medicine and other goods, and likely propel Britain into a recession. Fortunately, there is a way to stop the clock, if the European Union were to agree to do so, which seems likely.
But then what? The European Union will not relent on its demand that any deal include an open border in Ireland, thus precluding any agreement for a harder Brexit that many Conservatives want. It might agree to a much closer economic relationship, but that would keep the British economy effectively tied to Europe without London having any say over the rules shaping its future, which is anathema to many Conservatives and others.
A do-over, a second referendum, would set a clearer path forward.
Europe can help. It now knows what a future EU without Britain could look like. It may be terrible for Britain, but it isn’t much good for Europe. Brussels should address some of the real anxieties that stoked the vote to leave, notably immigration, which bedevils many other EU members as well.
For three years, Britain has focused on little else than Brexit -- diverting attention and resources from all of the other pressing issues confronting the country. This holiday from history has been costly. It’s time for it to end.
Ivo Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former US ambassador to NATO. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)