Editorials

Softer, slower: on Brexit vote


With the overwhelming vote on Thursday to seek a delay to the exit from the EU, Britain’s Parliament might have actually given Prime Minister Theresa May another chance to push her existing deal for Brexit. A day earlier, a majority of the MPs decided to rule out, under all circumstances, Britain’s crashing out of the EU without an agreement. With the catastrophic consequences of a hard Brexit option thus foreclosed, from Britain’s perspective at least, there is good reason to think that the worst is over for the U.K., although there is no clue yet to the direction of the exit. Both these proposals had been rejected as part of earlier amendments to the draft withdrawal bill, and the votes this week reflect a significant shift in Parliament’s stance. Yet, a delay to the March 29 deadline to leave the EU can only bring a temporary respite from uncertainty. For one thing, Ms. May’s controversial withdrawal agreement was on Tuesday emphatically rejected by the House of Commons for the second time in as many months. But a silver lining for her, despite the setback, was the smaller margin of defeat this time. Some die-hard Brexiters who voted down her deal in January have since grown increasingly concerned about the prospect of a delayed Brexit or no Brexit at all, and chose to endorse it this week. The shift has encouraged Ms. May to seek a third vote on her deal next week. The calculation in Downing Street is that with the hardliners’ preferred option of a ‘no deal’ Brexit virtually eliminated and a looming indefinite delay, more Tories will rally behind her proposals. The group to especially watch is Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up Ms. May’s minority government.

 

Should Ms. May’s gambit next week succeed, the government intends to seek from Brussels an extension, until June, to complete the exit formalities. Conversely, another failure would risk a delay in the U.K.’s ultimate withdrawal by months. The U.K. would then have to hold polls in May to elect new Members of the European Parliament. For EU leaders, the duration of the extension is less of a concern than the potential for a concrete outcome, given the differences within and between the main U.K. parties. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, is on record that he would recommend a longer extension, to the other 27 heads of EU governments when they meet next week. Developments this week have dealt a huge blow to hardline eurosceptics in the U.K., whose narrow nationalist delusions have made them impervious to the economic cost of disengagement from the world’s largest single market. The harm they have already inflicted on the polity and society must be contained. It would be unwise of them to impede the efforts to avoid a hard Brexit.



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