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A ‘No Deal’ Brexit Can Save the European Union

Posted by hkarner - 19. Januar 2019

Date: 18-01-2019
Source: The Wall Street Journal By Joseph C. Sternberg

For the bloc to retain its democratic legitimacy, it must let the British have what they voted for. 

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks in Hastings, U.K., Jan. 17.

The European Union is often accused of being an undemocratic conspiracy against its common people. Tell that to the British, who are discovering to their chagrin that sometimes the EU gives voters exactly what they say they want.

This week witnessed another few turns in the Brexit psychodrama. The House of Commons directly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s preferred exit plan and the next day indirectly rebuked Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for providing pathetic opposition to Mrs. May. Fine. This is how a parliamentary democracy works. If no majority of lawmakers can coalesce around a Brexit plan, they shouldn’t be making one.

Which is where the unheralded democracy kicks in. Underlying this political fiasco—the years of unsatisfactory negotiations with Brussels, the cabinet infighting in the U.K., the high-profile political resignations, the humiliating legislative defeats—is one reality. The U.K. is on track to leave the EU March 29 in the cleanest way possible, without any deal binding the country back into the bloc.And that’s what Brits voted for. This matter is often clouded by arguments about the nature of the political campaign in favor of Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum. Voters were presented with a series of dubious promises about what Brexit would accomplish. None of the Brexit campaign’s pledges about fiscal policy or the attainability of global trade deals made a lot of sense.

Many Brits now like to say they were misled. Had they never witnessed a political campaign before? Of course they were misled by Leavers, in the same way Remainers habitually overstated Brexit’s immediate economic costs. Voters’ civic duty lies in applying their best judgment to separate the fact from the flimflam.

Well, this time voters let themselves get flimflammed, and they increasingly seem to recognize it. Polls now suggest staying in the EU would be more popular than leaving. Britain isn’t ready to leave the EU, economically or politically. Support for a hard Brexit—the common term for what might better be described as “real Brexit”—is sinking as voters conclude they prefer some other closely integrated economic and political relationship with the EU.

Pro-Brexit politicians were among the first to recognize this shift. Of the two who led the Leave campaign most prominently, Michael Gove has retreated into Mrs. May’s cabinet, whence he vigorously defends a withdrawal agreement she negotiated to mitigate whatever hard-Brexit consequences voters want least. The other, Boris Johnson, argues that if only a new prime minister (he seems to mean himself) tried harder, a different deal could be struck with Brussels that better honors the verdict of the referendum.

Neither view makes any sense. No deal would be the most referendum-consistent outcome of all.

The blame-allocation game is more than an academic matter, even at this late date. How one interprets the U.K.’s domestic political fiascoes has implications for what one thinks Brussels ought to do in response.

The common theory at the moment is that Brussels must bend to Mrs. May or some other British politician, extending sweeter terms to make a withdrawal deal more palatable to the U.K.’s divided and indecisive voters. Brexiteers frame this in terms of a demand that Brussels “honor the will of the British voters.”

That’s a tougher case to make than many seem to realize. If Brussels gets a bad rap for habitually subverting democracy in its member states, it should think twice about conspiring with British politicians to relieve U.K. voters of the burdens of their democratic choice.

That’s true even if a deal with the U.K. would mitigate the short-term economic threat Brexit poses to the rest of the EU. Economic disruption is a nontrivial danger, as is political instability in Northern Ireland. But other European voters also have assented to the Lisbon Treaty, which contemplates exits such as the one Britain is attempting. For EU member states, this implies both an ability to leave and a commitment to let a disaffected party go despite the costs.

This won’t come naturally to the EU. Running throughout its DNA is the notion that it exists to protect voters from bad decisions. Those Brussels actions that most distress euroskeptics—the Greek bailouts and their stringent conditions, the fiscal rules, the regulatory overreach—are intended to save voters from themselves. Brexit is an unwise decision that has triggered anew Brussels’s protective response.

It doesn’t matter. Democracy isn’t about wisdom, it’s about responsibility. The U.K.’s best path now may be to try to reverse Brexit entirely, but that’s the Brits’ choice to make. The EU’s democratic legitimacy rests on letting British voters get what they asked for.

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