Now what? The House of Commons – the “mother of parliaments” – has resoundingly rejected the deal Theresa May wangled out of Brussels to let the UK have a Brexit that she originally didn’t even want. It was a terrible deal. It would have erected an administrative border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in order to avoid a hard border between the latter and the rest of Ireland. No EU member state (think Spain and Catalonia) would have accepted anything of the sort.
But what follows could turn into disaster. A no-deal Brexit on March 29 would bring back precisely the hard Irish border that everybody fears. It may also plunge the UK into economic chaos and convince the Scots to leave after all. It would leave Germany without a large northern ally within the EU as a counterweight against the protectionist and statist south. And it would deprive the EU-27 – caught between a menacing China, an aggressive Russia and an unpredictable America – of a nuclear-armed confederate.
All remaining options are bad. It would be bad for the UK simply to abandon Brexit: That would look undemocratic and permanently embitter about half the country. It would also be bad to call a second referendum. For a start, what would the question be? No-deal Brexit versus Remain? Bad-deal Brexit (the one parliament just rejected!) vs. no-deal Brexit? Bad deal vs. Remain? Or a nestled question containing all of these? Direct democracy is not suited for weighing such complex trade-offs.
And yet this bad option, a second referendum, is the least bad, because all others are worse. That’s why the EU-27 must help. First, they should agree to postpone Brexit. Second, led by Germany, they should be more forthcoming. Yes, the Brits have been incompetent; but the EU-27 have been intransigent. Their stated reason is that allowing the Brits to “cherry-pick” would compromise principle and set precedent. It’s time to get over that.
Let’s give the UK a special deal. The argument is laid out best by the Ifo Institute in Munich. It notes that rigid unions based on coercion – Habsburgs, Ottomans, Soviets, Yugoslavs – eventually collapse. So the EU must become flexible. In some cases – with Switzerland, say – it already is. It should concede that the “four freedoms” – movement of goods, services, capital and people – are not necessarily inseparable. Why not offer the UK, and others who want it, access to the single market with some enumerated controls over migration? For instance, the UK could let Europeans move into its labor market, but not into its welfare system.
With a magnanimous and pragmatic gesture from the continent now, the Brits could call a second referendum with dignity. It could pose a new and simpler question: Brexit, or Remain in a reformed and flexible EU? Proud of the liberties they have reclaimed, and yet relieved that they can stay integrated into their continent, most Brits would choose Europe for good.