Why Can’t Britain Just Walk Away from the EU?

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  • 23 July 2017

If you speak to anyone from UKIP, leaving the EU can be achieved in a week. They base this claim on a pamphlet by Gerard Batten, the gist of which dictates that repealing the 1972 European Communities Act ‘dances around Article 50’ and means Britain’s membership is no longer valid and all commitments and laws that apply are nullified. As such, negotiating an exit of any sorts is unnecessary and Britain would then be free to negotiate any trade deal and relationship with Europe it wishes.

The only problem is it’s factual incorrectness. Then again, this is UKIP, they made clear their distrust and disdain for experts who know things during the Brexit referendum.

The reasons why can be split into the practical and factual, sometimes with overlap. It is the facts which former leader Nigel Farage chooses to neglect, as these show why Brexit is not straight forward, but also why the current relationship is not something we can just walk away from. There is also the harsh realities, which as the 1980s show, eventually catch up.

  1. Theresa May’s Minority (practical)

This is the most obvious reason yet, not the most problematic. Nevertheless, a disastrous election has made the Prime Minister look weak at home and abroad. Relying on the support of ten Northern Irish MPs, she also resides over a party that has been heavily divided on Europe for decades. Never mind that no Tory MP who supported leave offered a blue print of how to achieve this, all said it was possible and promised the earth would come as a result. The Eurosceptic wing of the party will tolerate nothing less than a ‘hard Brexit’ and those who voted remain are far more cautious. They are forever contradicting their colleagues to the press, which further undermines the government. Theresa May must be hoping Brussels will offer a way out!

  1. Public Opinion has shifted (practical)

While most now accept Britain will leave the European Union, the fact is that there is no overwhelming support for a ‘hard Brexit’. A recent YouGov poll for The Economist found 52% prefer a soft Brexit, more specifically membership of the Single Market, and only 44% a hard Brexit (4% were undecided). The same poll showed 3% of Leave voters have also switched to Remain since the vote last June (52% to 48%). Whilst Theresa May’s stance matches most Leave voters’, they are now in the minority. The longer Brexit takes the more aggravation it will cause all sides. With her own minority in mind, the Tories would be mad not to consider public opinion at this stage, especially with Labour ahead in the polls and doing everything it can to force another election. The government has recently softened its tone and made several u-turns. Embarrassing for them, but it may not be the worst thing in the world (see the next point). What does not help are UKIP and Euro-sceptics who go purple in the face shouting ‘this is not what the British people voted for’. There was only one question on the ballot paper and no blue print for what the Leave option would look like. Therefore, this claim is factually false.

  1. It is a complex process (factual)

The ‘cake and eat it’ approach was never realistic and Boris Johnson knew this. Cherry picking parts of the European project are OK when joining, not exiting. Many other countries have their own special agreements with the EU but, and it is a big but, these took years to finalise. Two years is too short a time to undo the last 44. Something else the government is keen to avoid is the ‘what comes next’ question. Regulators all come under the ECJ, and Britain relies on 35 of these. Anything new would have to replicate the existing ones to maintain equivalence. Most companies prefer to stick to what they know, and fear setting up British regulators would not only waste time and money, but also result in increased bureaucracy. We also need to decide which exact laws we want to repatriate and this requires lengthy Parliamentary debates. On top of that, the Civil Service is under great pressure right now and this government is not overly keen on public sector workers, recently been made evident by the Chancellor.

  1. The economic reality (factual)

Let’s start with where Britain’s trade goes currently: 44% to the EU, 16% to countries who have a free trade agreement with the EU, 20% to the US and 9% to the Commonwealth (some already trade freely with the EU). The National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a think tank, calculated that downgrading from the Single Market to another free trade deal would reduce Britain’s trade with Europe by a fifth. To put this into a broader perspective, Britain’s trade with the BRIC countries and Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Canada combined is about 5%.

The reality is that Britons are not prepared for this. The Centre for Economic Research calculated that if a hard Brexit occurred and Britain entered WTO rules, trade would be cut by 40%, and annual income per person would reduce by about 2.6%. This is not ‘project fear’, it is just the reality that may manifest, and it should be considered. Complaining about this is not being a ‘remoaner[1]’, it is called scrutiny.

EEA or EFTA membership would cause the least economic damage; however, free movement of peoples is still part of both. A hypothetical customs union shows any potential deal with third countries would come nowhere near to the economic benefits Britain currently gets and would still be impossible. ‘No deal’ where Britain ends up on WTO rules means that if Britain were to set tariffs for Europe at a certain level, other countries would expect the same. Moreover, when you divide each sector of the economy, it gets further complex, with quotas alone. Fishing is 0.1% of Britain’s GDP and two-thirds of it goes tariff free to the EU now. Or how much butter from New Zealand that goes to Europe does Britain ‘need’?

A decision will be expected soon and when the population feels the effects of Brexit, it may think twice about whom it sends to Downing Street.

Although just four, these are big concerns which Euro-sceptic politicians have little patience for hearing.

These alone are good enough reasons for them to avoid the negotiations. At least David Davis has shown he is flexible and a sane person in the recent talks. Andrea Leadsom, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove are known to develop their ideas and party policies in a mental institution.

These reasons also show another weakness in the Brexit negotiations and stance; important though it is, the EU is not just about trade. If British voters suddenly lost holiday, sick and maternity pay, had to pay for visas on arrival and had to get extra health insurance, Brexit would get the blame.

Indeed, the problems at home are mounting. Salaries have stagnated since 2008 whereas CEO pay has gone up 48%. That was not EU fat cats and red tape it was the Conservative Party. Infrastructure is in trouble and needs dealing with, the health service and schools too. Brexit is becoming an unneeded distraction for just about everybody.

If there were a fifth reason, it would be history. Indulge me briefly for one last moment.

I was recently at a conference in Cuma, Italy. One day the organisers arranged an excursion to visit some ancient ruins. Among them, Virgil’s Cave and the Temple of Giove. It struck me when there that this is where I came from. Not Italy, I have no Italian ancestry. But there I was stood in the spot where modern literacy was born. En route to Naples was Dante’s entrance to hell. Western civilisation, our mindset and values came from here all the way to the shitty town where I grew up.

Whether Britain is in the EU or not, the idea of Europe is an important one. Whether we admit to ourselves or not, everything we hold dear and the way we conduct our daily lives came from this continent. Walking away is impossible.

[1] Remainer.

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