March 24, 2019

Perhaps the best one can hope for this coming week in the United Kingdom, in light of a slightly extended Brexit deadline to April 12, is something akin to a failed suicide. As is sometimes the case after narrowly escaped tragedy, the potential victim draws meaning from the exhilaration of unexpected survival.

Perhaps, by some miracle in the coming days, wiser heads in the UK government and parliament can construct a longer Brexit extension for a year or more that would allow a period of national reflection, resulting possibly in a new general election or even a second referendum, a so-called "people's vote," on whether to leave the European Union under now-known terms.

Perhaps, British legislators will see this reexamination as the only alternative, having soundly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit plan twice – an agreement the EU has insisted it won't renegotiate. They voted as well against the only other outcome on offer: a hard, no-deal Brexit with all its devastating economic consequences.

The process of elimination would seem to leave only one logical way forward.

So perhaps it is not too late for one of the world's great parliamentary democracies to come to its senses and concede that the country knows now what was unclear at the time of the June 2016 referendum: the United Kingdom will be economically poorer and politically less influential under any Brexit plan. The run-up alone by one estimate is costing the British economy 40 billion pounds annually and 2 percent of GDP.

Perhaps even Brexit advocates will have learned that their argument that leaving the EU would allow British citizens to "take back control" of their country was always a false premise. Nothing could have made that clearer than the huddle of 27 European leaders this week, laying down the final terms dictating when exactly the British people will leave the EU and under which circumstances.

And, perhaps even the most frustrated and angry Eurocrats in Brussels will remind themselves that both Europe and the UK will be less if the current suicidal course isn't replaced by urgent intervention and reconsideration.

Perhaps, just perhaps, by next week pigs will fly.

Impossible dream

Yes, it may be an impossible dream that the United Kingdom's ongoing nervous Brexit breakdown could end as outlined above. Yet the past week has made it more possible.

The new facts: EU leaders in Brussels have given the United Kingdom just the sort of breathing space that could result in a better outcome. Parliament will vote again next week on the Theresa May plan, and if they approve it May 22 will be the Brexit date, one day before EU parliamentary elections.

It would be a shame if it happens, as the consensus is that all sides dislike the plan.

If parliament fails to pass it, EU leaders have given their British partners until April 12 to indicate what's next. As the Danish Prime Minister put it, the new date gives the UK, "an opportunity to rethink the whole thing," as it is the last possible time the UK could decide to participate in European Parliament elections, which could also unlock the lengthier process.

This column has been waiting for the right moment to opine on Brexit, after long weeks of watching the UK's national nightmare, Europe's delusional underestimation of the costs to itself, the United States' unfathomable amnesia about the historic costs of a divided, wayward Europe riven by growing nationalism.

For me the moment of truth came Wednesday evening in seeing British Prime Minister Theresa May blame her country's ongoing crisis on her own parliament, the House of Commons, not only one of the world's grandest deliberative bodies but also a group upon whom her continued leadership ultimately rests.

She spoke to her citizens for four minutes, standing at her lectern at 10 Downing Street, using that brief time at such a historic moment more to apportion blame than provide solutions. "Two years on, MPs have been unable to agree on a way to implement the UK's withdrawal," she said. "Do they want to leave the EU with a deal? … Do they want to leave without a deal? … Or do they not want to leave at all? … So far parliament has done everything possible to avoid making a choice."

She then abruptly turned and walked off, leaving British MPs infuriated over her blunt accusations, and the chances for her deal being approved even further diminished.

Parliament must decide

Yet Mrs. May has a point that now is the time for parliament to make a choice

It has been parliament's refusal to accept Mrs. May's plan that has ensured the failure of the suicide. However, Mrs. May is right that they haven't made a clear choice about the direction they now wish the country to take. It is time for Parliament to reassert its political authority, which was left aground after the rare plebiscite in June 2016 on Brexit. The vote was only the third time a UK-wide plebiscite had been called.

There are compelling reasons for parliament to intervene and push for a Brexit re-examination.

The strongest are that the economic costs are growing clearer with every day, some two million young Brits have gained the right to vote since referendum (a vast majority of whom oppose Brexit), and there is considerable evidence of foreign intervention in the referendum that hasn't been fully examined.

On the matter of costs, a no-deal Brexit scenario would cost the UK almost 6,000 pounds per household, and its GDP would be up to 7.8 percent lower according to the International Monetary Fund. Even if the UK reached a free trade deal with the EU, its economy would be 3.9 percent weaker.

On the question of voter sentiment, though it is far from clear how a new referendum would turn out, a petition calling for Theresa May to cancel Brexit by revoking Article 50 has passed three million signatures – and counting. The parliament's petitions committee noted the rate of signatures, running at one point at nearly 2,000 per minute, was "the highest the site has ever had to deal with," ultimately prompting it to crash.

On the question of foreign intervention, the biggest ever campaign contribution in British history, 8.4 million pounds, made to Nigel Farage's muscular Leave Campaign, came from an obscure businessman named Arron Banks. His long-running financial and personal ties to Russian businesses and officials, were richly profiledin this week's New Yorker. Questions over the true source of Bank's contribution and whether Russia sought to influence the Brexit vote ought to be more deeply investigated.

The arguments against extending the Brexit agony are good ones – British voters are weary of the process, angry at their leaders and waiting for it all to be over. Their fellow Europeans are frustrated with the Brits and want to move on to other urgent matters.

However, the risk of grave national harm to the UK outweighs all that. It's time to back away from the cliff and reconsider.

This article originally appeared on CNBC.com

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. Subscribe to his weekly InflectionPoints newsletter.

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