Tuesday, 29 November 2016
Why leaving the EU is a bit like building nuclear power stations
Britain's efforts to leave the EU are a bit like trying to build nuclear power stations, that is it takes a lot longer than you expect, you're not quite sure it will actually happen and it is very expensive.
Of course we have to decide what Brexit actually means. Whatever the status of the 'have our cake and eat it' notes may be as reported in The Times this morning, this will be viewed as fantasy by many except if you take the Daily Mail very seriously. Leaving the EU could actually be much like Norway or Switzerland's position in that we take all of the rules, including rules on free movement of people. We just won't have any say on them. That'll mean we can whinge all we like with the absolute assurance that we can't do anything except shout at the foreigners rather than speak their language. A perfect English sereotype!
However the notion that we can leave and have some sort of Canadian-plus style of free trade agreement with the EU any time soon (as implied in the Times story) is stretching things too far. Like Hinkley C, such a thing might be possible in theory in many years to come, but in the near-term it is not going to happen. In terms of the EU a Swiss-type agreement is much more likely.
That's because trade deals take an awful long time to negotiate, and as we have seen with the EU-Canada agreement, are fraught with the difficulties of getting every EU nation to agree with it. It's taken 7 years to negotiate this agreement, and it is not finished yet.
Sure, the UK could agree a quickie-ish exit from the EU, within or around 2 years as stipulated in the much-mentioned article 50. That would be covered by the Article 50 injunction that a leaving deal would be agreed by a qualified majority in the EU. But the subsequent agreeement detailing trading relationships would have to wait, leaving the UK having to face trade tariffs in the (could be very lengthy) meantime. The Government has already given assurances to British industry that this will not happen of course (Nissan, CBI etc). So what's to give?
Well, not the EU, since it is sticking very hard to the principle of free movement in its negotiations with Switerland who seem to be accepting a face-saving compromise in order to stay in the Single Market. So, logic has it that the UK might get a more speedy deal if it simply accepts a Swiss type deal, since that appears to be much more a la carte than much else on offer. The Government would trumpet that it has got a concession that British employers could, if they wanted, give British people first peiority in job appointments, but that would be all they could do apart from reinstate the social security chnages that were agreed by David Cameron.
Even that of course maybe looking on the hopeful side because that will enable an optimistic reading of what is possible within two years.
Of course you might say, and UKIP et al seem to be saying this, why not just leave and take the tariffs. Well, we're back to the assurances given to Nissan etc, which rules that out, and anyway business will riot (not a pretty picture). So using the chess analogy, the Government is in check, and can't get out of check within several years unless it concedes staying in the Single Market. The effective choices of the UK Government become reduced either to staying in the EU as we are at the moment under some temporary basis, or doing a Swiss or Norweigian style deal. Given that the Government does not want to go into a General Election in 2020 without any imminent prospect of leaving, the UK Government is in a very weak negotiating position. It will have to accept what is offered. A Swiss deal is almost certainly the best it will get (although there's plenty of Remainers who will still say that full membership is still best!).
Those are the rules of the game, and the only plausible way out of it is if the game, that is the EU, collapses in the meantime. Much as Nigel Farage seems to want this, the collapse of the euro at least is not something that anyone who has money in a bank would wish for.
Below (underneath the link to the Times article) is a link to a UK Government discussion of leaving the EU. see page 14 in particular