The Brexit campaign made numerous promises for what leaving the EU would mean. Looking at the arguments of the Leave campaign, it may now be that remaining is actually the best solution for keeping those promises to the voters.
In a ‘meaningful vote’, the British Parliament rejected Prime Minster Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. A better deal negotiated by March 29th is, however, highly unlikely in spite of Mrs May’s best efforts to bring the camps together and Owen Patterson’s praise for the talks as ‘constructive’. A growing number of voices call for a second vote. MPs therefore face a stark choice in the coming weeks: risk a no deal, leading to turmoil on the island of Ireland and a string of uncertainties buffered only by a skeleton of essential international agreements; or delay Brexit; and as Theresa May pointed out, ‘risk no Brexit at all’.
No Brexit at all may in fact be the perfect solution for most Brexit supporters. It is now clear that the negotiated Deal will leave the UK no more than a vassal state of the EU, locked in to the rules without a vote, due to the irresolvable Irish Border question. The EU will be obliged, should the UK diverge from EU tariffs and standards, to construct a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland – as without such a border, the single market, would be compromised. On the other hand, the potential of a No Deal is proving to be even less capable of delivering on the promises of the Leave Campaign.
The ability to control migration into the UK was a prominent pledge of the Leave campaign. The idea was that on leaving the EU, the UK would no longer be bound by the four freedoms, including the free movement of people from other areas of the EU.
However, every solution proposed so far would be unlikely to cut immigration from the EU. An Australian-style points-based system not only already exists in the UK for non-EU citizens, but it would fail to block the majority of people coming from the EU to work in Britain. Most EU citizens coming to the UK would be eligible for entry on the basis of their qualifications, and in any case, are estimated to bring nearly €2600 more to the economy on average than the average UK citizen does. Meanwhile, sectors dependent on migrant employment would likely be starved of key workers, leading to agricultural shortages and shortages in other vital sectors.
Aside from the fact that most of the UK population benefit themselves from free movement; be it on holiday, study or work; leaving the EU would simply render the process of bringing in talent more complex, and send a message to the world that the UK is closed to business. On the other hand, within the EU, the UK can continue to impose a points-based system on non-EU countries, and can co-decide on questions such as if a new EU Member State should benefit from free movement straight away1. Moreover, the UK can, in theory, engage with other Member States through the EU to ensure that migration routes to the UK are controlled.
More money for the NHS
An unforgettable promise, made on the ‘Brexit Bus’ of more money for the National Health Service, echoes wider claims that money sent to the EU from the UK could instead be redirected to other causes.
The money given to the EU is actually tiny – around 1% of UK GDP: much less than the defence contribution mandated under NATO. Moreover, the assumption that the money can simply be redirected presumes that no benefit to the economy is gained from participation in the EU at all: in effect, this is a zero-sum analysis. This simplistic view ignores that scientific collaborations, investor certainty and the ability of business to access the world’s biggest free market from the little island called Great Britain, boost investment into it; and therefore, bring more to the economy than would otherwise be possible. In order to counteract the over €29 billion already spent per year on Brexit, the best solution may simply be to remain in the EU.
Spreading wealth more fairly
The most Leave-supporting areas of the UK, also correlate to being the most disadvantaged. In spite of being the second biggest economy in the EU, the UK is also highly unequal, with poverty a growing issue (a fact underlined by a recent UN Envoy report, heavily criticised by the UK Government). The EU provides funds for regions with a lower GDP than the EU average through the Structural funds (the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund). It is well-known that the areas receiving greatest EU structural support, in fact often voted to leave.
Leaving the EU would mean that the UK Government would need to find new sources of funds, and put in place new financing structures to support these poorer regions – a task amongst many in the vast legislative work needed to plug the regulatory gaps on leaving the EU.
An independent trade policy
A major benefit of leaving the EU would be the possibility of defining liberal trade deals with third countries quickly and independently. The assumption is that the EU’s size is cumbersome to negotiation, acting as a barrier to swift and agile trade deals. A classic example of this is illustrated by the failed ‘TTIP’ EU-US agreement. However, on leaving the EU, the UK will no longer be able to apply existing EU trade deals, and will have no immediate comprehensive trade deals to fall back on; reverting instead to World Trading Organisation rules for most goods and services. Outside of a free trading bloc, nations can only expect most favoured nation tariffs from trading partners, which are, by default, higher than these within the free trading bloc: pushing up prices for consumers.
Furthermore, outside of the EU, the UK remains a world economy, but is no longer part of the world’s second biggest trading bloc. The advantages of access to the UK market are substantially diminished and the UK’s position to extract concessions and agreements on standards of products crossing into Britain from new trade deals will be decreased.
Another argument employed in favour of leaving has been that, instead of the EU, the UK would find a more natural alternative in the Commonwealth as a trading partner. The Commonwealth nations now find themselves in their own regional trade groupings, having moved on from their ties with the UK over the past 40 years. The view that these former colonies will leap at the opportunity to re-open trade routes with the UK has been shattered by their reactions to Brexit. Although they will consider trade deals with the UK, they have already indicated they are more attracted to spend time negotiating deals with the larger market of the EU than with the smaller British market as a priority.
The British people are increasingly rediscovering the very foundation for the EU’s creation. In the words of Winston Churchill (a frequently misquoted figure by the Leave campaign), “The future of Europe if Britain were to be excluded [from the European Community] is black indeed” and that“…the Government are right to apply to join the European Economic Community…”. The UK in the EU is already part of a huge liberal trading bloc, able to exchange goods within the world’s second biggest market, free from barriers and tariffs.
Parliamentary sovereignty, free from the shackles of EU and EU judicial control, has been the crowning goal of the Leave Campaign. The ability to decide wholly on the UK’s standards, taxes (notably on tampons) and regulation is portrayed as the greatest win from leaving the EU. The claim that leaving will result in an Eden of autonomy sits in flagrant contradiction to the aspiration for free trade deals with some of the world’s other large markets. A coveted comprehensive free trade deal with the USA would mean a willingness to lower standards and conform to its market frameworks – unless the UK would be willing to see its own manufacturers undercut by cheaper, but lower quality goods. This is aside from the fact that the UK remains subject to international codes of conduct, targets and jurisdiction through the International Criminal Court. Should the UK shun the EU or USA, it may be sovereign but it will be intolerably hit economically.
Ironically, other Member States have actually stated explicitly that EU Membership does not preclude even the building of a closed state. President of Hungary Viktor Orban heralded the EU, noting “I don’t think that [Hungary’s] European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.”
By now we should ask whether any of the Leave campaign’s promises at all can be fulfilled by leaving the EU. A powerful image from the referendum campaign was the flotilla of boats which drove down the Thames, carpeted with Vote Leave flags and headed by Nigel Farage at the stern. The claim, as illustrated on the Fishing for Leave website, was that leaving the EU would create “a golden opportunity to regain 70% of the UK’s fisheries resources and rejuvenate a multi-billion pound industry for the nation”, bringing prosperity and sustainability to the fisheries, as Norway, Iceland and the Faroes demonstrate.
The culturally-important industry pins its hopes on the fact that after leaving the EU, the UK will regain control of ‘its waters’, and decide which stocks can be fished there and which can’t. The waters can be closed to other ‘foreign fishing fleets’, meaning greater catches for British fishers. Unfortunately, the UK remains subject to international maritime law and will therefore can only claim quasi-complete control of waters up to 6 miles out. Moreover, the UK may be an island, but it sits just 21 miles from France at its closest point, and consequently shares almost all of its fishing stocks with one nation or another. It must therefore negotiate with these countries, of which most are EU members.
For a sustainable fisheries system, the UK must also continue to impose quotas, as fish stocks are far from inexhaustible. It seems unlikely that the UK Government will distribute such quotas, which it has always had power to do, differently in future: therefore fishers will find themselves in the same situation as before, without a seat at the table to bargain with other EU Member States when they decide on their ‘TACS and quotas’ for fish species and stocks each December.
On the other hand, even if the UK did manage to negotiate higher quotas after exit, the industry currently only employs 11,000 people (a figure unlikely to grow after exit) and brings little to no actual gain to the UK economy.
“Everywhere, in every age, in every area however wide, our every grouping of peoples however diverse, unity has made for strength and prosperity for all within its circle. Why should Europe fear unity?” -1930 Churchill in an article on the United States of Europe.
Leaving the EU without a deal (and most probably even with a deal), is highly unlikely to deliver on the promises made in the Leave campaign. It is reasonable to believe that those promises were the driving force behind the Leave vote, and therefore it makes sense to evaluate whether leaving will actually bring about those claims. As the analysis above shows, leaving is more likely to diminish Britain’s standing in the world, whilst providing little actual sovereignty, trade and fish gains beyond name. Brexiters search for influence for Britain on the world stage, but as Mrs Merkel put it, “You can much better have an influence on the debate when you sit at the bargaining table and you can give input”. Perhaps it is time to reconsider why the Leave vote won in the first place, and think about how to deliver on that.