The British Parliament has forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask for another extension for their country’s exit from the E.U. Johnson has dutifully complied, while saying he doesn’t want one.
French President Emmanuel Macron is right to favor only a very short extension beyond Oct. 31 — or no extension at all. That’s the only way forward for the almost 450 million non-British Europeans who need their leaders to solve their own problems. But it’s also the best solution for British democracy.
Both the E.U. and the U.K. face many urgent matters, including conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, a looming economic downturn, rising authoritarianism in member states such as Hungary, and long-term challenges posed by an ailing transatlantic partnership and the rise of China. European leaders can’t afford to squander any more time and energy on a country that has its own political priorities.
The U.K. is a distraction. If the British want to focus on defining their post-European future — let them. Europe has already shown ample patience and goodwill: The U.K. was originally supposed to leave on March 29 and has been since granted two extensions. At British request, the withdrawal agreement was renegotiated. The clock has run out.
As for the British, it’s already clear that Brexit entails politically brutal choices. Faced with unpalatable alternatives, British parliamentarians will always prefer to kick the can down the road rather than settling on a clear plan forward. But that’s their problem, not the E.U.’s.
There is no “right” way of leaving — all the options involve trade-offs. Ending free movement means ending U.K. access to the single European market. Scrapping E.U. standards means erecting new trade barriers between the U.K. and the continent. Pursuing an independent trade policy means placing a customs border somewhere: either between Ireland and Northern Ireland, or between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The result is a circular debate that has brought policymaking to a standstill. In a Brexit-less world, the ruling British Conservative Party would be pursuing pro-market reforms, balancing the budget, and adapting foreign and defense policy to the world’s changing geopolitics. But as things stand now, the British political class continues to be preoccupied with one thing only: Brexit.
Anguished confrontation over the terms of Britain’s departure is exacerbating political polarization, fanning a new culture war that keeps bringing up the temperature in British politics up to dangerous levels.
This has to stop. Johnson has many flaws, not least his penchant for shameless demagoguery, but his slogan about the need to “get Brexit done” carries a dose of truth. It is indeed better to endure a painful end than pain without end.
Without a clear break, it is hard to see how the current high temperature in British politics can come down. An early election will not solve the problem since both major parties are internally divided over Brexit. A repetition of the plebiscite would likely pour more gasoline on the fire. And if a second referendum contradicts the result of the first one, it will give birth to a myth of a stab in the back of the British electorate and ensure that the Brexit betrayal is still debated 10 or 20 years from now.
True, the act of leaving will not answer substantive questions about the future relationship between the U.K. and the E.U. A future agreement about the depth of the partnership between the two, politically and economically speaking, will still require hard choices about what happens at the end of the transition period. But politics is about symbols more than about anything else — and bringing the U.K. out of the E.U. would be an important act of political symbolism, whether one agrees with it or not.
I am convinced that the U.K.’s own interests will ultimately guide it back into the E.U. fold. But those interests will become apparent only in contrast to the reality of Brexit. Without actually leaving, the current British debate can go on for years, unlikely to be resolved by an early election or a second referendum.
Only when the U.K. is out will its political parties be able to regroup around substantive visions of the economy, regulatory culture, and Britain’s place in the world. But as things stand now, there is no point in waiting for that future to come into being. There is no point in prolonging the agony of divorce. The U.K. must go.