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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 February 2019

Brexit is a crisis of timing, not direction

Exercising the right to withdraw the notice to leave the EU and regain control over the chaos could still work

MPs queuing to vote in the House of Commons last week after Theresa May faced a no-confidence motion. Parliamentary handout / EPA
MPs queuing to vote in the House of Commons last week after Theresa May faced a no-confidence motion. Parliamentary handout / EPA

Metaphors about the British departure from the European Union often compare the process to a runaway train.

While all signals may be flashing “danger ahead”, it does not follow that the tracks are set in the wrong direction. This is a crisis of timing, not direction. For that reason, a Brexit disaster on March 29 could yet be averted.

Ending the 46-year European project was never going to be easy. More than two years after the 2016 referendum backed leave, there is still no workable solution and instead, a paralysing crisis persists.

Little consideration has been given to the question of whether London is quitting at the right moment. The rapid integration the EU has experienced since the financial crisis a decade ago makes it difficult to withdraw until the political circumstances are right.

Reacting to its own problems in the eurozone, Brussels has extended its remit too far for the ever-sceptical Britons. The European regulations rolled out in recent years form a body of laws and practices that will be very difficult for newly independent lawmakers in London to unwind in any coherent way. Its influence over large parts of finance and services industries, where the British economy is strongest, is strongly entrenched.

The embedded nature of the integration of the British economy with Europe has bedevilled Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiations to leave. Pressure to keep car plants and other factories functioning without interruption led her to negotiate what could be dubbed a supply-chain Brexit.

Such was the focus on frictionless trade (not to mention the spectre of border issues in Ireland) that the politics of Mrs May’s deal were unacceptable to the huge majority of MPs when put to the House of Commons last Tuesday.

It is possible to argue that Brexit would have stood a better chance had the country waited just a few years.

Politics in the bigger countries of Europe are fragmenting rapidly. The long-standing left-right divide has shattered in Germany, France, Spain and Italy.

The imperative of sharing a single currency means that all these countries need to integrate yet further to align politics and the economy. The impediment to this lurch to a tight European core lies in a raft of countries that won’t sign up.

Even in the throes of Brexit, French President Emmanuel Macron has pushed unsuccessfully for a cohesive European future. He tried but failed to get the Germans to agree to a single European budget.

He has also promoted the idea of a single European defence initiative. To get that up and running will require not only alignment with Nato but also some partnership with Britain that cannot at the moment be easily defined.

The changing politics of European states makes it hard to define which countries will be inside and which will baulk. There are countries like Poland and Hungary where the ruling parties would dearly like to have more autonomy and that list is bound to grow. Add to these other states that are not in the EU, such as Switzerland and Norway, and a two-tier framework could yet come into view.

Brexit came at an inconvenient and unplanned moment in the slow-moving breakdown. The trauma of rejection for Europeans left little bandwidth to rise to the challenge of a well-managed Brexit. The shock on the British side is well-documented and left Westminster aiming for the narrowest possible bridge to a new future.

The moment of truth is now at hand and the chances of halting Brexit at the 11th hour is sharpening the debate.

One reason for pause is a second vote on the whole Brexit process. This initiative has powerful backers and a slick campaign behind it but makes no sense. It is a proposal without clear purpose. It would either plunge Britain into an immediate withdrawal on very bad terms or maintain British membership as if nothing had happened.

The effect on British politics in either outcome would be catastrophic and a second referendum result would not stand the test of time.

Exercising the right to withdraw the notice to leave the EU and cancel the current flawed approach to a negotiated departure can still work.

Westminster would regain control over a situation that spiralled into chaos for no real reason. Europe would gain from the move by showing that stability and strategic thinking remain the continent’s strongest assets. It was in that spirit that German leaders wrote in a letter to the Times newspaper on Friday, telling the British people they would be missed if they left the European Union.

To put the sentiment into action, it is necessary to hit the emergency brake on the Brexit train. Solutions await just a little further down the track.

Updated: February 20, 2019 04:22 PM

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