Monday, 6 June 2016
Reasons to stay in the European Union, #5: Brexit might smash the British state to pieces
As Britain apparently teeters on the brink of leaving the European Union - as voters weigh up the pluses and minuses of the choice, with some apparently increasingly convinced that leaving is a safe option - we'd like to draw attention to a little-known and little-understood reason why they should think again. It's the mechanics of what happens next - so painful, so complicated, so potentially deadly to the very existence of the British state as we know it now that anyone advocating it must pause and wonder: 'would this really be worth it?' Because we think that the UK isn't capable or intellectually and institutionally powerful enough to get out of the EU without some massive wounds in the body politic. Let's show you what we mean. There are three areas here that should cause concern to anyone interested in, or who writes about, governance issues in the UK: so let's go through them one by one.
Legacy legislation and government powers
Start here: we're not even sure that Britain can 'leave' the European Union in any meaningful sense, at least for years to come. There would be the inevitable wrangle over the terms, of course, and as prominent Leaver Michael Gove admitted yesterday, it might be many years before we cease to be a member. Recall that it took little Greenland three years to leave, and that only fishing questions were contentious at all. Could we actually get out in the two years given in the Nice Treaty as the timeframe from triggering the process to a Brexit? No. No chance. We'll be negotiating for the rest of this Parliament and beyond - as Mr Gove, perhaps unintentionally, has now accepted. World Trade Organisation experts have made crystal clear that all the deals that the EU has made there will fall, for us, if we leave: the basic WTO rules that we would have to rely on are basically used by no-one at all, and we would face the prospect of thousands of days of bilateral talks, especially on services, so as to avoid falling back on them - just at the moment that the line-by-line details get worked on in Brussels and at one and the same time the other 27 member states. Civil servants won't be able to take the strain. There are too few of them, especially after years of managerial austerity. The UK Government will have to draft in as many 'irregular' newcomers as it can muster (and afford). You think that 'experts' and elites have too much control over your life now? You just wait until this lot get going.
But it's not just that. The insertion of European Union rules and regulations into British life has now gone very far towards bending the details of life in the UK towards Single Market norms. There are thousands and thousands of Statutory Orders which have not been 'ordered from Brussels', or reprinted out of Strasbourg, or anything silly like that, but which take account of or give effect to different cadences of Community law. Do you want to know what could happen after we leave the EU? The Government is going to have to go through all of them - tens of thousands of them - and decide which ones to keep. Administratively very hard, we're sure you're agree. More sinister? The Government's then going to be using pretty summary approaches to deciding which ones stay in law - a massive and unacceptable accretion of power to the executive that no good social democrat or conservative should accept.
The break-up of Britain?
Here again we've got to be careful. We could just say 'oh, Scotland will leave the Union if the UK leaves the EU'. And then point out how draining, how wounding that process would be, at the same time as London tries to negotiate its way out of its continental commitments. But it's not as simple as that. Remember that the Scottish National Party just lost its overall majority at Holyrood (though it still remains enormously popular) - and recall, too, that Scots tell opinion pollsters both that they are not keen on a rapid second plebiscite after a Brexit vote, and that they might well still vote 'No' even if there was one. The terms aren't likely to be all that enticing: joining the Schengen free movement area and the Euro, and potentially putting up a customs barrier at Carlisle and Berwick (if Britain's exit negotiations with the EU go very badly)? Not a prospectus that would self-evidently carry the day. That said, a Brexit would definitely re-open the whole question, and force us all to fight the same repetitive political war all over again - while Scotland's much more pressing needs to diversify its economy and fight educational division are ignored for another five years. Since the SNP itself, and last time's 'Yes' campaign, know all this, and would actually and very sensibly rather delay another independence referendum until the 2020s, this doesn't seem a particularly controversial point - in the Scottish context, at least.
Think, also, about the likely post-Brexit situation in Wales and Northern Ireland. It is perfectly possible that these two constituent parts of the UK will also have voted 'In', only to be dragged out by England. There seems little doubt that Northern Ireland will vote 'Remain', while the situation in Wales seems too close to make any definitive judgement. This stuff matters. Wales relies heavily both on EU funding, and on Foreign Direct Investment (potentially, for instance, at the Tata steelworks) to keep its very fractured and struggling economy on the road. Five or six years of negotiations with our European neighbours will make all that worse - though not as bad as things might get in Northern Ireland, where the Republic of Ireland's government will be forced to consider bringing back a 'hard' border with all the passport checks and bureaucracy that involves. Most British voters forget that the UK has a land border with an EU state. If the main aim of a Brexit is to limit immigration, such measures - with all their chilling effect on Northern Ireland's economy, and its fragile political system - will have to come in. There would seem to be little choice. One can only imagine what the people of Northern Ireland will have to say about this wanton trampling on their rights. Whichever way you look at this, you're left with the feeling that the United Kingdom's days will be numbered if there is an unbalanced, disorderly recoil from Europe.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there's the political aspect. What you're doing if you go over the edge, and into the unknown, on 23 June is electing a new government. That's blatantly obvious now. Prime Minister David Cameron's enemies have got together and seized a stick with which to beat him down - perhaps forever. So Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or (even more worrying) Priti Patel are going to be Prime Minister after this. They're going to lead a government that's going to make Mrs Thatcher's look like a Trotskyite conspiracy. And in the midst of that takeover - all in the name of the little guy, you understand - they're going to try to work through all the above. Get real. Get serious. They're not up to it, and they won't be able to manage it. It will turn to an impossible wrestle with a whole sea of octupuses. Mr Johnson in particular, as pro-European a politician as Britain has ever produced, must get down on his knees every night and pray that 'Leave' don't win. Because then he'll actually have to go through with this absurd farrago. He won't enjoy it.
What will make their situation even worse is that Britons will have voted to leave the European Union, not the Single Market that is so vital to our economy. There is, of course, always the 'Norwegian Option' - to stay in the European Economic Area, and thus the Single Market, pay in and accept many of the rules, but get little say in how they're made. Now if this is where we're going, this blog would be much happier: although diplomatically sub-optimal and seriously damaging to Britain's influence, many fewer jobs would be lost in this scenario. Except the Leave camp have now painted themselves into a corner over immigration. They can't now sell the EEA to British voters, because it involves the free movement of people (albeit with a few more protections in the shape of an 'emergency brake'). A referendum that has been won purely on the basis of the fear of 'Other' foreigners cannot then be followed by a reversal of engines on that scale. No matter how cynical you are - and Mr Johnson appears to be one of the most cynical people on the planet - it's not a runner. Faced, however, with a House of Commons that will probably seek to impose just this outcome, what are Mr Johnson and Mr Gove going to do, as they face each other round the Cabinet table with little 'o's of shock as mouths, when they realise the vice they're in? Answer: they don't know. They're going to try to busk it, perhaps utilising a snap General Election to defy one side or the other. There's going to be some prolonged panic in the markets as this becomes clear.
Multiple crises - of administration, negotiation, nationhood, statehood, politics, party and personality - are going to smash into and against each other. All, dear reader, at your expense.
There is no doubt that leaving the EU would be an act of economic self-harm. No-one on the outside can make head nor tail of it, with foreign journalists turning to each other and whispering 'what are they doing?' But it's not just the economics. This is a wider public policy disaster in the making, still ill-understood and ill-measured even on its brink. It's not only the damage to our foreign policy, our relations with our friends and allies, the lowered sights and the turning-inwards that all this would mean. It's the legislative deadlock, the wearying and exhausting negotiations that will bring all other government business to a halt, the addition to the powers of the executive, the uproar in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the prospect of a crashed or zombie Parliament, the twisting and turning between the EEA and the open sea to which there can be no answer without yet another crisis.
Those of us who love the United Kingdom want to see it well governed. If you vote 'Leave' seventeen days from now, there is no prospect whatsoever that it will be.