LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Theresa May’s Brexit compromise has confirmed Britain’s hard choices. After a year of intense negotiations – mostly with members of her own party – the prime minister late on Tuesday secured a draft deal to leave the European Union. The agreement with Brussels would shackle the United Kingdom to the bloc without the influence it enjoyed as a member. Opponents have two options: crash out next March, or call another referendum.
Details of the unpublished agreement are buried in hundreds of pages of legal language. But the broad outlines suggest Britain will remain in the EU’s economic orbit for decades to come. First it will enter a transition period which is effectively the same as full membership. The two sides will then try to negotiate a new trade agreement. In the absence of a deal, however, Britain will remain in a customs arrangement that requires it to accept rules from Brussels. That would help avoid a new land border in Northern Ireland. The terms on which Britain could leave this arrangement have not yet been decided, EU sources told Reuters on Wednesday.
This compromise is the predictable consequence of trying to reconcile the contradictory objectives of leaving the EU while maintaining the smooth flow of trade. Hardline Brexiteers argue the accord is unacceptable. But their only alternative is for Britain to leave without a deal in March. They have done little to prepare voters for the disruption and economic pain that would involve.
May will doubtless argue that her deal is preferable to no deal at all. However, pro-European parliamentarians have a third option: putting the compromise to the public. That campaign received a boost last week when Jo Johnson quit as transport minister and endorsed a second vote.
Yet reversing the 2016 decision would also be difficult. Neither of Britain’s two main political parties currently support a second referendum. Just agreeing on what question to put on the ballot will be highly contentious. The EU would probably have to agree to halt the Brexit process to allow time for a vote. And there is no guarantee that the referendum would produce a different result.
British parliamentarians now have to choose between three unattractive options. The fight will only become more bitter.
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