Editorials of The Times

Posted November 16, 2018 11:41 p.m. EST

Brexit: A Series of Unfortunate Choices

No sooner had Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her 585-page draft of a deal on withdrawing from the European Union than all hell broke loose. Ministers resigned, hard-core Brexiteers began stirring up a leadership challenge; in the House of Commons, May’s talk of a “smooth and orderly” divorce drew prolonged hilarity followed by a three-hour assault on her plan from every bench — Leavers, Remainers, Labourites, Liberal Democrats, Northern Irish, Scottish Nationalists.

In the bitter saga of Brexit, each formidable hurdle has been followed by an even greater one. So it is now: If May survives this onslaught, and if the agreement is approved by the union, the deal must return for a vote in Parliament, where current tallies are heavily against it. The prospect of Britain exiting the union at the March 29 deadline without a deal, the worst of all possible outcomes, looms large. That, almost everyone agrees, would be a disaster for the British economy and security. It would mean tariffs and border checks, miles of backed-up trucks, businesses in flight, supply chains choked and other woes galore.

Yet as the members of Parliament took turns denouncing May’s plan, none had a better idea. The reason for that is simple — there is no plan that would allow Britain to have its cake and eat it, too, as disingenuously promised by Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and most shameless of Brexit propagandists.

From the outset, British politicians have debated Brexit as if they have the decisive say in the outcome, while May has been compelled to deal with a European Union that actually does have the final word on the conditions under which Britain would retain access to the bloc after it withdrew. That is not to say the EU is indifferent to the outcome — a deal-less exit would have severe repercussions on the Continent as well. But EU officials in Brussels were never prepared to let Britain pick and choose among the benefits, costs and obligations it would keep or shed.

The key element of the compromise that has emerged is a 21-month transition period during which Britain would remain in a temporary customs arrangement with the union while the technology is put in place to ease the flow of people and goods across borders. Union officials are demanding a “backstop” plan while this technology is developed, under which the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, and Ireland, which will remain in the union, would stay open. May has objected that such a plan would split the United Kingdom in two, with Ireland effectively annexing Northern Ireland and creating a border in the Irish Sea.

More to the point, the agreement strips away any illusion of a quick and amicable break and exposes the harsh realities of what disentangling 45 years of close economic, legal, social and personal ties entails. The options are all fraught, starting with the specter of leaving without a deal. Forcing May out would set off a long and acrimonious power struggle, possibly leading to new elections and all the unknowns that step entails. Some champions of staying in the union favor a “people’s vote,” or a second referendum, which would allow voters to reconsider their position on membership with a clearer idea of the costs and risks. But polls have not tracked a decisive shift, and any outcome would exacerbate bitter divisions.

There is a lot to criticize in May’s handling of Brexit and in the deal she has negotiated. But at this late hour, Britain’s political leaders must stop spreading illusions and grandstanding, and focus on preventing what has been appropriately dubbed a “cliff edge” Brexit, a leap into the unknown with inadequate preparation. There is no “ideal” Brexit, and it’s time to make some tough choices.

The Mayor Fired a Watchdog, but New York Still Needs Oversight

While many in New York City were busy recovering from a snowstorm Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio dealt with another mess.

He fired one of his harshest critics, Mark Peters, commissioner of the Department of Investigation, the city’s semi-independent watchdog agency.

In a letter to Peters, administration officials cited an independent review this year by a former federal prosecutor, James McGovern, accusing Peters of abusing his powers by taking over an agency that investigates misconduct in public schools and firing its top official after she said the takeover violated the law. The review did not call for Peters’ ouster.

Peters could be overzealous. At times, he plainly overreached, as in the case of the schools agency.

Yet under Peters, the agency opened crucial investigations into lead paint and other dangerous living conditions in the city’s public housing authority. It released a scathing report on the state of the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Division, which Peters’ agency found was severely understaffed despite an increase in reported sex crimes. It also investigated whether senior de Blasio administration officials lifted a deed restriction on a Manhattan nursing home known as Rivington House, letting it be developed into luxury apartments, as a favor for the mayor’s donors. Ultimately, investigators concluded that incompetence, not corruption, was to blame.

Recently, The Times reported that Peters was investigating de Blasio. At issue was whether the mayor improperly obstructed a Department of Education investigation into whether some of the city’s ultra-Orthodox schools were failing their students.

All of these inquiries should continue under Peters’ successor. De Blasio said he wanted that to be Margaret Garnett, an executive deputy at the state attorney general’s office. Garnett must receive approval from the City Council, which means it will have the opportunity to ensure that she is committed to continuing her predecessor’s work and pursuing the public’s interest in clean government.

De Blasio appointed Peters and has the authority to fire him. But the city has benefited from Peters’ tenure. De Blasio’s administration needs rigorous oversight, just as much as the administrations of his predecessors did.

As if to illustrate this point, on Friday, the same day Peters was fired, police officials announced they were removing Deputy Chief Michael Osgood as the head of the sex crimes unit. Osgood had spoken to Peters’ agency about how his years of requests for additional resources had fallen on deaf ears at Police Headquarters.

Among advocates who support survivors of sex crimes, Osgood was regarded as a compassionate detective who had professionalized the Special Victims Division. Many of those advocates said they were angry about his departure and said they believed he was being punished for speaking to the Department of Investigation. Police officials deny that.

At a news conference, police officials said they appreciated Osgood’s service but were replacing him to bring a “fresh perspective” to the unit and transferring him to Staten Island.

“It’s betrayal,” said Susan Xenarios, a social worker and the founder of the Crime Victims Treatment Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center. “People are furious. This man has turned things around.”

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