The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Britain’s destructive deadlock may finally be ending

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

MAYBE IT’S a mirage, but there are signs that Britain’s destructive deadlock over leaving the European Union may be easing. Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May finally broke with the extremists in her Conservative Party who had blocked the exit deal she negotiated, and she opened negotiations with the opposition Labour Party. The hope is to find a compromise formula for Brexit that would preserve close economic relations with the continent and thus minimize the inevitable damage of a split. Meanwhile, E.U. leaders appear prepared to grant a new extension on Britain’s departure at a summit Wednesday, avoiding a crash-out this Friday. Such a disastrous no-deal Brexit has already been ruled out by Parliament — the one thing that badly divided body has been able to agree on.

Months more of fractious debate could lie ahead in London — especially as the E.U. might offer a long extension, until the end of 2019 or beyond. In the interim, Ms. May might be forced to step down as Conservative leader, agree to a general election or hold a new referendum on Brexit — or perhaps all three. That could reverse the fragile trend toward finding a centrist consensus and further polarize the country — which is why responsible members of all parties should work for a negotiated compromise.

For now, the chance that talks between Ms. May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will produce results don’t look particularly good. Mr. Corbyn, a rigid Marxist, has until recently been unwilling to pursue a solution to the Brexit crisis; his priority has been to force an election that he thinks could make him prime minister. The Labour Party, too, is badly divided over whether and how Britain should depart the E.U. And Ms. May can be inflexible. After the first rounds of talks, Mr. Corbyn complained that the prime minister had been unwilling to depart from her previous “red lines.”

The broad parameters of a compromise are nevertheless fairly clear. Britain would agree to remain in the E.U. customs union, which would allow mostly frictionless trade to continue and avoid the creation of a “hard border” between British Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — the factor that bedeviled Ms. May’s deal. Britain would remain outside the E.U. single market but would harmonize provisions for workers’ rights and the environment. And Parliament would enact legislation or negotiate provisions with the E.U. to ensure that any compromise deal would be respected by a future government, should Ms. May depart.

Accepting such terms would be agonizing for Ms. May, as they would split her party. But she has made the right decision by seeking to forge a centrist compromise, rather than accepting the ultimatums of the Conservative ultras. If no deal can be reached with Mr. Corbyn, she should follow through on her vow to hold a series of parliamentary votes on alternatives — and take whatever passes to Brussels.

Read more:

Fareed Zakaria: Brexit will mark the end of Britain’s role as a great power

Anne Applebaum: Theresa May was warned about Brexit. She didn’t listen.

Megan McArdle: Brexit hasn’t even happened, yet Ireland is already seeing signs of the economic toll

Robert J. Samuelson: We anti-Brexit folks should feel pretty self-satisfied now. Well, we’re not.

The Post’s View: Britain must swallow the hard realities of Brexit — or leave the choice to voters