Editorial: If you think Congress is dysfunctional, look at Britain’s Brexit dealings

Anti-Brexit activists fly EU and Union flags from the Millennium Bridge in Newcastle, England on March 15.
(Andy Buchanan / AFP / Getty Images)

If Congress seems dysfunctional to you, consider the spectacle recently on display in London.

This month is a crucial one for decision-making on Brexit, Britain’s looming withdrawal from the European Union. But a chaotic and bitterly divided Parliament has managed to do nothing beyond kicking the Brexit can furtively down the road and hoping the EU will play along.

The initial vote by British residents in 2016 to split from their continental partners may have shocked the country’s political establishment, but that was nearly three years ago. You might think that the many intervening months would have provided enough time to arrange for a smooth transition back to the status quo before England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland exchanged people and goods freely with the rest of Europe. Parliament’s formal approval of the withdrawal in March 2017 started a two-year countdown, and Brexit is now set for liftoff in less than two weeks — ready or not.

It’s entirely possible that Britain will put Brexit up for another nationwide referendum.


But one thing that’s become abundantly clear is that there can be no smooth transition. The formation of an essentially borderless Europe in 1993 has changed much about the countries and economies involved. So too did the 1998 Good Friday peace deal to end the violence in Northern Ireland — a deal enhanced by a relatively open intra-EU border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

What to do about that border has been probably the thorniest of the issues raised by the Brexit referendum; others include questions about trade and customs terms, regulatory parity, the “divorce payment” the Britain would have to make to part ways with the EU, and the rights of British citizens living in EU countries (and of Europeans in Britain). Most of those issues remain unresolved, but Prime Minister Theresa May — the leader of the Tory party that championed Brexit — negotiated a deal with the EU that would allow goods to continue to pass across the border in Ireland without duties even if there were no larger trade agreement between the two sides.

May’s deal would be better than nothing, but she has been singularly unable to push it through Parliament. On Tuesday, she tried a second time to win approval for the deal, and again she suffered a resounding defeat, opposed not just by members who want Britain to stay in the EU, but also by many Brexit supporters (including Tories) who want a cleaner break. Then, as the week progressed, lawmakers further muddied the waters, voting against leaving the EU without a deal, against seizing control of the process from the prime minister, and against holding another referendum.

The one thing they could agree on was that they’re not ready for Brexit. Parliament voted Thursday to put off the withdrawal indefinitely, a delay that requires the approval of every other EU member nation. EU leaders, who have opposed Brexit from the start, have expressed support for a delay that could stretch on for more than a year, evidently hoping that the would-be defectors will come to their senses and reembrace the union.


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It’s entirely possible that Britain will put Brexit up for another nationwide referendum; the Parliament’s recent vote against it was warped by the Labour Party leadership’s inexplicable decision to oppose another vote of the people. Brexit was a bad idea from the start, and the case against it has only grown stronger over time as businesses leave or limit investments in Britain to avoid the possible increase in tariffs and taxes.

Yet the British government seems to have lost the ability to learn from experience and change course, a problem that seems common among democracies these days. The country is sharply polarized over Brexit — just for one illustration, witness the death threats reported by members of Parliament who came out against withdrawing. In the minds of its supporters, the narrow vote in favor of Brexit in 2016 locks Britain into the split, regardless of the mounting evidence about how difficult and damaging it would be.

In short, an exercise in direct democracy has stymied the mother of all Parliaments. The events of the last few days have challenged the legitimacy of all the leaders involved; May’s position in particular may not be saved even if she somehow manages to persuade Parliament in the coming days to approve the Brexit terms she negotiated with the EU. That would clearly be a better outcome than a no-deal Brexit, but perhaps the best hope now is that the EU grants Britain a very long stay of its own economic execution.


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