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Nikkei Editorial

The UK must stop its Brexit bickering

Cool heads in Parliament are needed to avert a messy breakup with global repercussions

British Prime Minister Theresa May meets with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the commission’s headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 11. (Reuters)

It is growing increasingly doubtful whether the U.K. government and Parliament are fully aware of their responsibility for preventing the Brexit turmoil from spilling over to the rest of the world. The country's lack of direction is deepening to an unacceptable extent.

Just over three months remain until the U.K.'s separation from the European Union becomes official. To avert the chaos that would come if the country leaves the EU without an agreement, Britain's lawmakers must quickly put a stop to their endless -- and fruitless -- arguing.

The biggest problem now is that the government of Prime Minister Theresa May is still no closer to winning parliamentary approval of the deal that May reached with the EU to set the terms of the divorce. She had planned to put the deal to a vote at the House of Commons on Dec. 11, but postponed it at the last minute after recognizing that it would likely be voted down by a large margin due to a mass rebellion within her ruling Conservative Party.

May later survived a no-confidence vote among her fellow Tories, though more lawmakers than expected voted against her. This rift has made it difficult to break the bottleneck.

The U.K. and the EU have agreed to allow all of Britain to stay in the EU's customs union in the event that the future border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic remain unsettled. Hard-line pro-Brexit Tories strongly oppose this idea -- designed as "backstop," or safety net -- fearing that it could keep the U.K. bound to EU rules indefinitely.

It was against this backdrop that the EU, at a Dec. 13 summit, adopted a document stating that even if the U.K. remained part of the customs union, it would only be a "temporary" step -- a decision apparently made in light of the difficult circumstances in which May finds herself at home.

It remains uncertain, however, whether such gestures from the EU will be enough to persuade May's opponents in the U.K. to accept her Brexit deal. In the meantime, the main opposition Labour Party is calling for more moderate Brexit terms, as it attaches greater importance to the U.K.'s relationship with Europe.

It is problematic that neither Tory rebels nor the opposition camp can produce viable alternative solutions, and instead remain focused on lambasting the prime minister. As long as they continue wasting time like this, they are to blame for the lack of progress.

The Brexit deal, which May appears set to bring back to Parliament for a vote in January, is unlikely to be approved as it currently stands. That is why there is much talk about what will happen once her deal is rejected: from renegotiating May's agreement with the EU and pushing back the Brexit date, to May resigning as prime minister and the nation holding a general election and a second Brexit referendum.

None of these outcomes offer a clear path toward a final solution. Many members of Parliament are said to want to avoid the disorderly Brexit that would come with the absence of a valid deal with the EU. What matters now is how to prevent the situation from spinning out of control and yielding the worst possible outcome. This uncertainty over the future is a source of growing concern in business and other circles.

It is time for the U.K. to stop its indecisive politics, with lawmakers seeming as though they are asking for the impossible. The current quagmire can be seen as a test of the wisdom of a country that can take pride in its centuries-old tradition of parliamentary democracy.

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