TLDR: No! It’s tempting to say you can, but, it would be a disaster. The reality is it isn’t even possible to “just walk away”
During last year’s referendum the various leave campaigns were united in one big idea – that we could leave the EU but pick and choose and keep the bits we liked, whilst ditching whatever we didn’t approve of. It’s perhaps worth saying no one seemed to agree on what it was they liked and disliked, but the big lie at the heart of leave was that we could do a deal (or perhaps dictate a deal) better than that which we currently enjoyed.
I never understood how this was supposed to come to pass. I was told over and over growing up that the EU was a terrible wicked organisation, which not only had the intent to bully poor little England, but had the ability too. This was nonsense of course. The EU is a far from perfect organisation and the UK government and population can reasonably find themselves in opposition to many ideas fermenting in Brussels, but the EU aren’t bullies and even if they were the UK as one of the three most powerful countries within the Union could easily quash anything we really disliked.
This idea was pushed hard by the various leave campaigns. There were references to the EUSSR and Fourth Reich, but there was also another claim. It was asserted over and over again that a UK which opted out of the EU would be able to dictate the terms under which it left.
So we could still have free trade, but could opt out the free movement of people (but at the same time we could have the ones we wanted and our retired OAPs living in France and Spain definitely wouldn’t need to come back).
Now clearly there are some problems with these assertions. Apart from the fact that’s just not how the EU works (The free movement of labour, money, goods and services is a bundle. You can take the lot or leave the lot, but not select the bits you like.) and giving the UK a better deal than it presently holds is not really in the interest of the rest of the EU and certainly not in the interests of shadowy unelected bureaucrats working behind the scenes to create a Federal States of Europe. Giving a better deal to the UK would obviously encourage every other member to take a punt at getting a better deal and almost inevitably destroy the Union itself.
These points seem rather straightforward to me, but perhaps that’s just the result of one thing must be glaringly obvious to everyone. If we got bullied when we had a seat at the table, then how could we possibly not be bullied when we gave up that seat? It makes no sense to imagine Poor Little England would be cruelly abused for years, would sacrifice some of its power and then suddenly find itself pushing around the rest of Europe. It just seems to be an unspoken assumption that the rules written and unwritten of international relations and human nature would just evaporate upon the triggering of Article 50.
As has become clear none of this was remotely realistic. The EU isn’t even going to contemplate abandoning its fundamental principles to make life easy for the British negotiators.
In the aftermath of the referendum the terms “Soft Brexit” and “Hard Brexit” became common place. Perhaps they were used during the referendum, but they certainly weren’t used widely. Soft Brexit came to mean leaving the EU but remaining in the Single Market (and the Customs Union which most of us discovered for the first time was different to the Single Market). Hard Brexit came to mean leaving the EU and the single market. Throughout the campaign Remain supporters had repeatedly pointed out that halting or substantially reducing immigration from EU member states would mean leaving the Single Market. This was dismissed by leavers as Project Fear.
After the referendum it became increasingly clear that we were going to have to accept either “Soft” or “Hard” Brexit. It’s incredibly important to remember that we were explicitly told over and over again during the referendum by leave campaigners that “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market” (Dan Hannan of Vote Leave). Nigel Farrage suggested we should have a deal like Norway or Switzerland. in fact he was touting this as late as February of this year. In one interview he suggested that Norway were “opted out of all the things that really make the British mad”. Norway is, of course, in the Single Market. Switzerland’s relationship is more complex but it accepts most of the benefits of membership and most of the commitments. Dan Hannan publicly touted a Norwegian style settlement. Luke Johnson of Vote leave concurred talking of our “great independent future just as countries like Norway and Switzerland enjoy”. Owen Paterson of Vote leave said “only a madman would actually leave the market”. Matthew Elliot of Vote Leave said the Norwegian option would be attractive to business people. On 30 Dec 2015 Arron Banks tweeted “Increasingly the Norway option looks the best for the UK”.
It’s not clear why Theresa May made the authority of the ECJ a “red line”. One of the most convincing explanations is she just didn’t understand the ECJ and ECHR (which she came to hate during her time as Home Secretary) were different entities. The ECJ wasn’t much mentioned in the referendum campaign, but perhaps she somehow came to the conclusion that a court that primarily existed to arbitrate trade related disputes between member states was incompatible with leaving the EU. But Single Market membership requires accepting ECJ authority. Whatever her rationale Theresa May decided that we were opting for a Hard Brexit regardless of anything promised during the referendum.
“Hard Brexit” has somehow become the default position for leavers. How? Why? That’s a very long discussion we don’t have room for here. The 1984 style retconning of the campaign promises is disturbing though.
However, “Hard Brexit” still represents a range of possibilities. Would the UK continue with intelligence cooperation? What happens to UK citizens living in the EU and to EU citizens in the UK? A complete break means those people have to go back to their country of origin. And then there’s the matter of the “divorce settlement”.
It is now very clear that part of the cost of leaving the EU will include a bill for around £50 billion to be paid over a number of years. This has infuriated a lot of leavers. There is an insistence this is blackmail and that we are being exploited and that this isn’t what we voted for. Call to “just walk away” have grown. Many say the “divorce bill” isn’t worth paying and so leaving the EU with no deal is better than what they see as a bad deal.
It’s not a divorce settlement. That’s useful short hand, but it’s not accurate. The EU said last year that the UK would be held to those outstanding commitments to which they had already signed up. How fair the sum was is open to debate. The existence of a bill is not. Theresa May has acknowledged its existence. Once that was publicly acknowledge the prospect of telling the EU to “whistle for it” as Boris Johnson suggested was no longer viable (if it ever was).
When in the EU, disputes between member states can be settled by the ECJ. There’s room within a regional organisation for binding arbitration, but in the world outside those bodies nothing really fulfils that function. It’s the Wild West. In that international anarchy countries prosper or fail based upon their strength and reputation. As part of the EU the UK benefited from collective bargaining so it certainly won’t be stronger for leaving, but it is still a large economy so it does make sense to it retains some appeal. What’s more worrying is how our reputation is impacted by Brexit. We’re already suffering damage to our image as a result of this vote, but that is as nothing to the damage we would suffer for not honouring our commitments. The number one rule of international relations is that states honour their treaty obligations. Without an empowered court of arbitration governments have to decide whether they trust the country in question to honour their agreements. If we now “just walk away” from the EU and our debt then we are telling the world that we do not behave in good faith and who would trust us then? Would anyone trust us enough to broker a good trade deal?
Some insist that we would do just fine under WTO rules. We can crash out of the EU and just revert to WTO rules and work out some better deals over time. WTO rules aren’t good. In fact they are terrible for international trade. Tariffs and quotas would be imposed and our goods and services would become very unattractive as a result. But we aren’t even especially likely to get WTO rules. Currently the UK trades with those countries it has no trade deal with under WTO rules, but it has membership of the WTO through the EU. We don’t automatically become a WTO member if we leave the EU. In truth of course there hasn’t been a comparable situation so if it happens everyone will be feeling their way, but that doesn’t alter the fact there is quite simply no reason to believe we would automatically join. In reality we would have to be accepted by the rest of the membership. Any member could initiate a trade dispute and hold up or deny our membership. Can anyone think of any countries which might have a grievance against us? If Argentina didn’t spring to mind then Spain probably did, but depending upon how we crashed out we would probably be adding Ireland and the EU to that list.
So “just walking away” would lead to a disastrous set of circumstances. And we haven’t even mentioned the number of companies and industries who have been quite clear that they will leave the UK if we don’t not have free trade with the EU.
Some leavers assure us it would still be worth it. I am not sure what they base that view upon, but some people still claim it to be the case. Arron Banks seems to feel any kind of deal is unacceptable. Today (08 Dec 2017) he released a statement via the Leave.EU Facebook page that “We may as well just bend over and allow the European Union to have its way with us for years to come.” He was saying this of “Full regulatory alignment with the Internal Market and Customs Union” which as we have noted was exactly what he was calling in December 2015. People are entitled to change their mind of course, but this seems like quite a significant U-turn. There’s fury amongst leavers, but they cannot possibly imagine there was going to be a better deal.
So if this is so unacceptable perhaps we should “just walk”. Can we?
Well no! Let us look a handful of examples:
- Fisheries. Fisheries are a hot topic for leavers. People don’t like quotas, they think we’re getting an unfair deal and they get like the idea of foreign fishermen fishing UK waters. There are understandable grounds for grievances. One cannot help but feel that had our representative on the EU’s fisheries committee actually turned up for meetings perhaps those grievances would have been addressed years ago, but that’s a different issue. Why do we have quotas? Once upon a time fishing was hit and miss and sometimes fishermen got a good catch and sometimes they didn’t, but as technology improved and boats were capable of carrying larger and larger nets they developed the ability to catch larger and larger hauls. By the sixties or seventies there was a very real danger that some fish stocks would be wiped out by over-fishing. So quotas were introduced in order to ensure that fishing was sustainable. Without quotas the seas would rapidly become over-fished and stocks wiped out and with it the fishing industry. So no matter how painful quotas are, they are better than the alternative. But surely then the UK could walk away and impose its own quotas. Our three biggest fish exports are scallop, scampi and crab. We could in principle manage these stocks ourselves without any other country’s input, but that’s because these shellfish don’t travel a lot. Fish don’t recognise international boundaries, but that doesn’t matter with a crab because he doesn’t go very far out to sea anyway. Haddock, cod, shark, eel, herring, sardine, huss etc.. all move around. They aren’t our fish. They pass through German, Dutch and other waters (depending on the fish) so how we manage the stocks and fish them sustainably is an international issue. But what about fishing in UK waters? Well we fish in other countries’ waters and other countries’ fleets fish in ours. I don’t understand how that deal came to be, but that is the deal that evolved over many years and whatever happens next we need a deal. So we cannot just walk away and expect to still have a fishing industry in five years’ time. There has to be an international deal and the best possible deal probably looks a lot like the one we have now.
- Open Skies. Open skies is not but rather a series of agreements allowing different nations airlines to fly between and over different countries. Some of the open skies agreements we have we have as part of the EU. In the event of leaving the EU in an orderly manner it should be very simply to confirm that the UK inherits these agreements. But if we “just walk” that deal doesn’t exist. Like our trade deals or WTO membership if we just walk, we walk away from the existing deal. So if we “just walk” then we’ll be walking a lot, because we won’t be flying anywhere.
- Retired senior citizens living in Spain and France. The UK is unusual in Europe in that many of our elderly citizens choose to retire overseas. This is not something that other European cultures do. The UK diaspora in Europe is numbered in the millions. They are living there, because they are using the freedom of movement of EU citizenship. So what happens if we “just walk”? Other EU countries may be quite keen to attract educated and economically productive young people, but what do old people represent? A strain on local clinics and healthcare? Cast your mind back to the referendum and what was said about immigrants in the UK? So what happens if we “just walk”? Those OAPs come back to the UK.
- The Gibraltar Border. We have a land border with Spain. The Spanish government thinks Gibraltar should be part of Spain. Every so often in the past they have closed the border to pile on pressure. Their EU membership has forced them to behave. If we “just walk away” it is almost guaranteed that they close the border. Okay well that’s not ideal, but the people of Gibraltar will carry on. They made it through World War Two and anyway if the Spanish want to take Gibraltar then they’ll need to go through the Gibraltar Regiment. Right? Well quite a lot of people who work in Gibraltar (including a lot of the Gibraltar Regiment) live on the Spanish side of the border. So what happens if we “just walk”? Well it is physically impossible to “just walk” from a border. We have a border and we’re going to have to figure out how that border is operated.
- The Irish Border. Again we have a border, but this manages to be even more sensitive than that with Spain. The border has been sort of open since Ireland gained its independence. The border follows roads in places, rivers in others and divides towns and farms. That’s not going to change. If the UK wants to leave the Customs Union then it has to impose a hard border. There have to be customs posts, but that’s not practical. As one ex-soldier pointed out, ringing in to today’s Andrew Marr show, the British Army doesn’t have enough personnel to seal that border. And freedom of movement across the border is critical to the ongoing peace process. The UK government have considered an invisible electronic border in the Irish Sea – whatever that means. But how is northern Ireland supposed to function under EU customs rules when the rest of the UK isn’t? Does that just suddenly make Belfast the most attractive place in the UK to position a business? Or the worst? Whatever the case the DUP have the controlling block in Parliament and have said no. Whatever you think the solution is, just walking away isn’t it. We don’t have the ability to impose a hard border even if we wanted to.
6,7,8 etc.. There are literally thousands of issues where we currently work with the EU to find an international solution. If one looked hard enough one could probably find an agreement we currently have with the EU which is unnecessary or silly, but I cannot think of any. Even rulings on the classification of cucumbers based on their straightness are there for a reason and that classification needs to be international or else it’s useless. We have a deal, because a deal was necessary. “Just walking away” means crashing out of that deal and thus damaging our international image, but the need for an agreement doesn’t just go away.
So what next?
The border with the Republic of Ireland is the sticking point, which is forcing Theresa May to reconsider the whole Brexit process. How does she address that? A lot of the cheerleaders of leave are very unhappy, but what were her options.
- Leave Northern Ireland (but only Northern Ireland) inside the Customs Union. The DUP have already vetoed this.
x Not an option
- Impose a hard border with the Republic. Impossible to police, gets in the way of the peace process and is hugely unpopular on both sides of the border.
x Not an option
- “Just walk”. Well it requires impose a hard border with the Republic and Gibraltar and is not credible for a host of other reason.
x Not an option
- Leave the EU, but remain in the Customs Union and Single Market. Despite being what they campaigned for this option will not be popular with the arch-quitters, but it is a workable solution. The issue is it means accepting EU rules and regulations without having a say in them.
Ö Workable solution.
- Exit from Brexit. will be unpopular with leave voters (though almost certainly not as unpopular as no deal would end up being) but it is workable. But why choose the halfway-house Norway model when you could just stay in.
Ö Workable solution.