Voters in the United Kingdom shocked many observers when they voted 52 percent to 48 percent in June 2016 to leave the European Union. But voting to leave was the easy part. It is unprecedented for a nation to break from the EU, and the details of the departure, known as Brexit, are messy and uncertain.
While nothing will happen immediately, British Prime Minister Theresa May has invoked Article 50 of the EU charter, starting the clock on a process that calls for the break to take place in March 2019. In my view, the decision was a mistake. It will weaken the United Kingdom's influential role in Europe. And it will hurt the U.K. economically.
A majority backed leaving Europe because they wanted to regain British sovereignty, exert more control over immigration and end the free flow of labor from EU countries into the United Kingdom. It is not clear what the British people really want to happen going forward; are they hoping to walk away from the EU, or do they expect to work out some new relationship?
You get a sense the U.K. is adrift, and politicians are wrestling with Brexit's implications. But the voters have spoken; and in a democratic society, it is difficult for elected officials to disagree. Both major parties, the Conservatives and Labor, accept the results and say they will implement the departure.
At the same time, there are indications Britons are moving toward harsh truths as they begin to sort this out. There is now talk of trying to establish some kind of transition period -- not making a clean break in 2019 but maintaining a relationship for another two or three years.
The EU is suggesting tough terms for the divorce, which the parties have two years to negotiate. Their priority, of course, is to secure the stability of the 27 nations that will remain in the union. They don't want to let a member walk away without paying a penalty.
European leaders think the U.K. wants to have its cake and eat it too, to keep the benefits of economic integration without the costs.
After five rounds of talks, the negotiators have made no substantial advances. Europe's chief negotiator recently declared the talks deadlocked over such issues as the payments Britain owes from its membership in the EU, the rights of citizens who have crossed borders to settle in the U.K. or Europe, and the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
These are probably the most important negotiations the British have engaged in since the end of World War II. Even the question of which side moves first appears to be stalemated: British officials want the EU to offer concessions while the EU says the ball is in the U.K.'s court.
Whatever happens, Brexit is going to have a negative impact on the U.K.'s economic growth and its citizens' income. It will take away exclusive access to the largest common market in the world and cause a significant long-term reduction in the country's GDP. Estimates of the loss in average annual household income range from $1,000 to about $6,500 in U.S. dollars. The business community in the United Kingdom is getting nervous as Brexit approaches.
The issue is tearing apart the major political parties. Recent public opinion polls suggest more Britons now think it's a mistake to leave the EU than believe it's a good idea. But not all the financial and stability risks fall on the U.K. Some will affect the EU. If Brexit inspires other nations to take a chance on leaving the EU, the union could unravel and the continent's economy could weaken. America could see consequences too, as the EU is our largest trading partner.
As a candidate, Donald Trump praised the Brexit vote, which tapped into concerns about sovereignty and nationalism that motivated many of his own supporters. As president, he has offered few specifics about what that means for our future British and European relationships.
Over the years, the U.K. has been a steadying and unifying force in Europe, and it's not in anyone's interest for that force to be reduced -- especially at a time when the world is in considerable turmoil and needs a steady hand.
The choice comes down to a "soft Brexit," allowing the U.K. to maintain close trade and other relationships with the European community; or a "hard Brexit," in which the U.K. would gain full control over its trade and other policies but be forced to negotiate hundreds of new economic and other agreements across the world.
Is it too late to reverse the Brexit decision? Former Prime Minister Tony Blair thinks the chances of a reversal are 30 percent: "slim but not impossible," is the way he put it.
That the debate is being reopened is a welcome development. But reversing the decision would take a significant shift in public opinion in favor of remaining in the EU, and that shift would have to put pressure on elected officials. It won't be easy, but it is urgently desirable.