There’s a lot of hysteria in the British debate on leaving the EU. The Outers paint an image of a glorious new Elizabethan age where a nuclear armed swashbuckling free trade New Switzerland can be towed off the coast of Hong Kong without consequence. The Stayers paint a scenario of utter economic collapse if Britain leaves.
What’s the truth? The truth is that neither will happen. Britain will save some money, although less than they think. After all, the rest of us aren’t running the European Single Market for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s exporters will still have to play by rules set in Brussels, as they currently do with those in Washington and Beijing. If a Britain outside the EU takes serious measures to undercut European workers by imposing less employment protection there’s nothing to stop the EU putting tariffs on British goods in response, and happily spending a few years in the WTO debating it. That’s the thing about not being at the table where decisions are made. It takes longer to change them.
Chances are, it won’t come to that, because as every person who becomes the prime minister of a European country (including Britain) knows, solving problems becomes the obsession. Deals will be done, just not openly at EU summits. Britain, even out, will still be parked beside 450m of the richest consumers on Earth. Eurosceptics keep trying to suggest that Europe is somehow going to die off. The same people, by the way, who claim Europe is being swamped by new arrivals. The truth is, if a country of 450m people arrived beside Britain and announced it was going to leave in 20 years, would the Brits refuse to trade with it? They would in their eye.
Instead, British civil servants will continue to use draft EU product regulations as the basis for draft UK regulations. It’s just easier and suits exporters better.
There’ll be no more EU flags in Britain, but the substance will remain broadly the same. Britain will still maintain a presence in Brussels (as the US does) and that’ll be the de facto permanent representative to the EU.
Britain will of course be able to represent itself in global trade talks, which is a big deal to the eurosceptics. Although you have to ask: if Britain thinks it can’t get a good deal within the EU negotiating with comparable-sized nations (UK is second largest country in the EU) how on Earth will it get a better deal with China, a country 20 times bigger than Britain? will that be the headline on The Daily Mail when Prime Minister Boris comes back from Beijing having been thoroughly rogered in trade talks? “At least it wasn’t the French?” No, Britain will negotiate with the 450m EU as well, only this time from the outside and without rights. Bizarre.
What Brexit means is that Britain goes from having some of its key relationships in the openness of the EU moved into the behind closed doors style of the WTO, Commonwealth and NATO. Fair enough. Because let’s not forget: the British tabloids get to bitch endlessly about “mad” EU proposals because the EU actually makes and debates its proposals in public, unlike the aforementioned bodies. The WTO and NATO would pale at EU levels of openness. The Commonwealth is too busying trying to ignore some of its members kicking homosexuals to death.
When it comes down to it, Brexit is based on the belief that you can have more influence over a room by not being in it, but in reality standing outside a half open window and trying to slip notes through the gap, hoping your own people don’t see you doing it.