theresa may brexit nonconfidence vote Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images

Run Down the Brexit Clock

The terrifying prospect of a no-deal Brexit on March 29 remains in play after the British Parliament emphatically rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU. Although it is tempting to reset the clock and give negotiations more time, that instinct must be resisted.

ATHENS – The overwhelming defeat that Britain’s Parliament inflicted upon Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan was fresh confirmation that there is no substitute for democracy. Members of Parliament deserve congratulations for keeping their cool in the face of a made-up deadline. That deadline is the reason why Brexit is proving so hard and potentially so damaging. To resolve Brexit, that artificial deadline must be removed altogether, not merely re-set.

Leaving the European Union is painful by design. The process any member state must follow to exit the EU is governed by Article 50 of the bloc’s Lisbon Treaty, which, ironically, was authored by a British diplomat keen to deter exits from the EU. That is why Article 50 sets a two-year negotiation period ending with an ominous deadline: If negotiations have not produced a divorce agreement within the prescribed period – March 29, 2019, in Britain’s case – the member state suddenly finds itself outside the EU, facing disproportionate hardships overnight.

This rule undermines meaningful negotiations. Negotiators focus on the end date and conclude that the other side has no incentive to reveal its hand before then. Whether the allotted negotiation period is two months, two years, or two decades, the result is the same: the stronger side (the European Commission in Brussels in this case) has an incentive to run down the clock and make no significant compromises before the eleventh hour.

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