(Bloomberg Opinion) — The U.K. Parliament has approved, in principle, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s exit deal with the European Union, but has refused to let him rush it into law. The question is where to go from here.
An election could be in the offing — or, because calling one would require the parliamentary majority that Johnson lacks, maybe not. Even if the bill survives lawmakers’ scrutiny and eventually passes, Johnson would face grueling new talks with the EU about the future trading relationship.
One certainty is that Britain will need more time. To an exasperated electorate, it may seem like the 1,217 days since the referendum has been time enough to work things out. But trade deals with the EU typically take years to complete (seven in Canada’s case); Johnson plans to have this one concluded and ratified in just 14 months. That simply won’t happen. Without a longer so-called transition period, another no-deal exit will loom. Johnson’s deal, if it moves forward, should be amended to allow more time for these further talks.
More important, it should also be amended to put Britain’s choice about its future in Europe back to voters in a second referendum. Granted, this would delay matters further. But it would confer democratic legitimacy on the course Johnson has set, give voters clarity that the first ballot lacked, and ease the negotiating process to follow.
The government, for its part, needs to be more transparent about exactly what its intentions are. Johnson is proposing a decidedly hard form of Brexit: He plans to leave the EU’s customs union and diverge from its single-market regulations, replacing a once seamless economic relationship with a bare-bones free-trade deal. Even done wisely, this process would add significant barriers to trade; done rashly, it could be a disaster for businesses.
In any event, the public deserves an honest accounting. A government analysis of the deal published this week is silent on just about every relevant expense, and no wonder: Even on optimistic assumptions, the added costs of new restrictions on trade with Europe could be immense — to say nothing of the complex system of checks and rebates that Johnson proposes for Northern Ireland. One recent analysis suggests that the total hit to public finances could exceed $60 billion a year, with all the added austerity that implies.
Less tangible costs will also need to be confronted head-on. The new trade system for Northern Ireland, for instance, may pose grave political risks. By ensuring that Great Britain and Northern Ireland diverge in key respects, it has left unionists feeling defensive, betrayed or worse. By allowing a simple majority to determine if the North exits the arrangement, it has undermined the principle of cross-community consent that has helped keep the peace there for more than 20 years.
The full consequences of these momentous decisions are anyone’s guess. But one thing is clear: Johnson’s insistence that the agreement will simply “get Brexit done” couldn’t be further from the truth. Brexit may never be done. If a deal passed Parliament tomorrow, it could entail years more of tortured negotiation, unhappy trade-offs, rising complexity, worsening friction and pervasive uncertainty, with no particular end date in sight.
Voters may yet judge that all this is worth it for the added sovereignty that Johnson’s deal notionally affords. But the choice should be theirs.
–Editors: Timothy Lavin, Clive Crook.
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