Theresa May’s Brexit deal deserves conditional support

If parliament cannot ratify it, a second referendum may be needed

The editorial board

Britain faces a moment of reckoning. The decisions parliament must take on the UK’s exit from the EU are the most consequential since MPs voted to join the then European Economic Community in 1971. The path of the UK’s departure will have a profound bearing on its prosperity, security and standing in the world — indeed, on the very kind of nation it aspires to be.

It is right that parliament, as the cradle of Britain’s representative democracy, should cast the “meaningful vote” on Theresa May’s withdrawal deal from the EU. Parliament approved the decision to call a referendum in June 2016 and voted overwhelmingly to respect the Leave vote. MPs must keep this in mind even as they make a cold-eyed assessment of the prime minister’s Brexit deal. It is a finely balanced decision.

There is little that is appetising in the agreement. It is manifestly inferior to the UK’s existing terms of membership of the world’s largest trading bloc. At Maastricht, an earlier conservative prime minister, John Major, masterfully negotiated a deal whereby Britain could stand outside the eurozone while enjoying full access to the single market. At a time when liberal democracy is under threat, Brexit diminishes both the UK and the EU.

This is the hard reality, in contrast to the illusions and lies of the Brexit cheerleaders. Promises of an easy exit and instant free trade deals with the rest of the world stand exposed as fiction. Most mendacious of all is the claim that the UK could feast on the benefits without respecting the obligations of membership, the “cake and eat it” canard.

Mrs May made a complex task infinitely harder by triggering Article 50 prematurely. She set the two-year countdown ticking to departure, with no agreement on the destination. Her ministers squandered precious time bickering among themselves instead of negotiating with Brussels. Mrs May held a botched election that cost her majority. The prime minister set red lines that needlessly hemmed her in. The Labour party, riven by Brexit but desperate for power, has evaded any responsibility to provide serious alternatives.

Most egregiously, the withdrawal agreement risks tipping Britain into a “backstop” arrangement that would not bolster its sovereignty, but dilute it. True, the backstop is an insurance policy designed to preserve the fragile peace in Northern Ireland and avoid a hard border with the south. It would be triggered only in the absence of a new deal to take effect at the end of a 21-month plus transition period. But the backstop would leave the UK bound into a customs union with the EU27, largely unable to negotiate trade deals with third countries but prevented from leaving without other members’ assent. Such a veto is, at face value, intolerable for the world’s fifth-largest economy.

For all its faults, however, it is questionable how much better the withdrawal deal could have been even without the government’s mis-steps — or whether trying to renegotiate it would result in anything substantially different. This is not defeatism. The EU27 held firm in the negotiations. Trade-offs were inevitable. In the end, an agreement that rightly aims to deliver what 52 per cent of the voters supported without alienating the other 48 per cent was doomed to disappoint.

Yet Brexit is the most complex demerger in postwar history. It involves unwinding nearly half a century of economic and legal ties. Mrs May’s 585-page agreement does settle important issues. The rights of millions of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU are secured. The deal cedes political influence but guarantees the frictionless trade and economic stability essential for business and jobs during the transition, with a possible two-year extension. Above all, it avoids the calamity of crashing out of the EU, with all the chaos and hardship that would entail.

Critics will bemoan the lack of clarity in the accompanying political declaration on the future UK-EU relationship. This may turn out to be a virtue. The declaration aims to balance a degree of economic integration with giving Britain back control over immigration — an important factor for many Brexit voters. But it keeps open all potential destinations, from a Canada-style free trade agreement to a more closely integrated Norway-style option, remaining in the single market plus a customs union. It offers a stepping stone to a range of future relationships rather than plunging into the no-deal rapids.

Mrs May’s deal respects the will of the people while tempering the effects of a referendum decision which this newspaper still considers a grievous act of self-harm. It is imperfect but ultimately pragmatic, which is why the Financial Times, reluctantly, offers conditional support. To reject it, as the majority of MPs seem inclined to do, is a high-risk strategy. It assumes credible and superior alternatives, which are not at hand. Above all, it threatens to hand victory to the Brexit Montagnards led by Boris Johnson and fellow fantasists who are ready to take the country over the cliff in pursuit of their purist vision of an unfettered, independent Britain.

The parliamentary arithmetic suggests Mrs May does not have the votes to pass her deal, at least the first time round. Failure would make a no-deal exit much more likely. Avoiding crashing out would then become the priority. MPs should be ready to stop the clock on Article 50, and potentially seek a Norway-style relationship. If this proved unpalatable and all alternatives were exhausted, parliament would then be entitled to call for a second referendum. This would not be to dishonour the 2016 vote. The result might be the same. But at the very least voters would be far better informed about the true nature of the choice before them.

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