Even though the Brexit team have failed to articulate a clear case for doing so, leaving the EU might still be the best strategy for success in the 21st century.
Whether it is or not hinges on three predictions made by the Brexit camp:
- The struggling Euro and European economies are about to collapse so we should detach ourselves from them
- The rise of the political far right in Europe means that membership of the EU would drag us in a direction we don’t want to go
- We can make better, faster, more nimble trade agreements if we are unshackled from the bureaucracy of the EU
Strategically, none of these hold water.
In 2008 the US sub-prime mortgage market collapsed. We were not ‘part of’ the USA but it still massively affected our economy. The reality of the 21st century is that we are all in an integrated global market. As our largest trading partner, the health of the European economy affects us more than most, whether we are part of EU or not. If we stay in at least we have the chance to influence the outcomes we want.
History also shows what happens if we isolate ourselves politically from Europe. In the 1930s Europe moved to the far right. Britain stood back. But we had to get involved eventually anyway. If, in the 21st century, Europe again moved far enough to the right to affect us then it would do so whether we were inside or outside the EU. Remaining in enables us to influence the process earlier rather than later.
And finally, possibly the strongest argument for Brexit is that in a changing world, ‘unshackling’ ourselves from the ‘EU bureaucracy’ would give us the agility we need to be able to make faster trade agreements with the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, as with food and sex, speed does not equal quality.
There are two types of trade agreement we need to consider: trade with the rest of Europe and trade with the rest of the world.
Currently, membership of the EU gives us “automatic passporting rights” within all of the EU. As Professor of European Law, Michael Dougan, explains, if we as a country chose Brexit then whether we followed the Norwegian model, the Swiss model, or whichever, “In either scenario, if we decide to kiss goodbye to the single market … then UK businesses, manufacturers, service providers [would] simply have to accept that they no longer have these automatic passporting rights within the single market. The trade environment [would] be much less favourable.”
And for trade with the rest of the world, “It is completely beyond doubt that leaving the EU [would] also terminate all of the UK’s trade agreements with third countries,” because those agreements were made within a framework that had Britain as an EU member. Then the main reason, it turns out, that other countries would want to make new trade agreements with Britain is because of the access that gives them to other parts of the EU. So, “If we’re not part of the Single Market any more,” Professor Dougan concludes, “we actually don’t have an enormous amount of bargaining power.”
History shows that, economically and politically, it is impossible for Britain to isolate itself from what happens in Europe. And in terms of trade, leaving the EU would not only throw away our ability to trade effectively with our single largest trading partner, but would also discard the one thing that makes Britain most attractive to trading partners in other parts of the world.
Strategically, Brexit would be a recipe for disaster.