Britain had no choice but to delay Brexit by at least three months, as it voted to do today.
The European Union is almost certain to approve that delay.
Unsurprisingly, some are upset.
They view this as a betrayal of the British people and a failure of good government. And to a degree, they’re correct. When, in the summer of 2016, 17.4 million Britons voted to leave the EU, they expected that Brexit would occur in short order. Clearly, that hasn’t happened. But the central question for Parliament on Thursday was not whether Brexit should occur but how it should occur. And that’s a question that the British public manifestly did not answer in the 2016 referendum.
The question for parliamentarians on Thursday, then, was whether Britain should allow a “hard Brexit” on March 29 or whether it should take time to find a new consensus that gets Brexit accomplished. Which is to say, a Brexit that occurred without any reciprocal agreement with the EU.
Yes, there are hundreds of parliamentarians who now would wish to see Brexit canceled entirely. But they are not the plurality, and the British government remains committed to bringing Brexit to fruition. As the BBC’s Norman Smith explained, the delay vote does not mean that Prime Minister Theresa May is now politically impotent. A second referendum remains unlikely, voted down as it was by parliamentarians in a separate vote. Neither has Parliament taken control over Brexit from Theresa May.
But had a hard Brexit occurred on March 29, I believe it would have been disastrous. That’s because it would have forced Britain to immediately negotiate its post-withdrawal trade arrangements on an ad hoc World Trade Organization basis. At the same time, the prioritization of Britain’s economic crown jewel, the financial sector, on ease of trade and access to Europe, says otherwise. To risk those interests would be to risk sending Britain into a devastating economic recession. Perhaps even a depression.
What of voter intentions?
Well, while hard-Brexit supporters suggest that this is what the vast majority of “Leave” voters wanted in 2016, they are wrong. The opinion poll data shows that when “Remain” voters are also factored in, a plurality of Britons supports trade with the EU on the effective customs union track Theresa May has established.
Ultimately, this is far from an ideal scenario. But as the new end-of-June Brexit deadline approaches, the prospect of a unity agreement between pro-Brexit parliamentarians of different Brexit-type stripes will grow. Because if the next deadline is missed, Brexit itself will be at risk.