A Hard Brexit Risks No Brexit at All
Comment of the Day

June 15 2017

Commentary by David Fuller

A Hard Brexit Risks No Brexit at All

Here is the latter section of this forceful and inevitably controversial column by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard for The Telegraph:

Like others, I have floated the Norwegian option as a half-way house for five to ten years. The European Economic Area allows to Britain to retake farming and fisheries, and to remove itself from the EU's widening competence of foreign, policy, defence, justice, and home affairs.

It would give Britain access to the EU single market without being a member of the customs union, which we should avoid like the plague. Outside the customs union the UK could negotiate trade deals with the US, China, India, Japan and others over time. To remain in the union - the latest media fashion -  is completely wrong-headed. It would leave the UK trapped inside the EU trade net.

The elegance of the EEA is that if we wish to withdraw  later, we could do so in less traumatic circumstances than withdrawal from the EU today under the cliff-edge clause of Article 50. 

It would become progressively easier to break free entirely - if desired - as trade deals stacked up. This would create some implicit leverage. Britain would probably have just as much effective say over EU market legislation as it does now under qualified majority voting, where it has no veto.  

Outside the customs union, the UK would have to comply with rules of origin codes to prevent China, the US, or any other third country, using our market a duty-free back-door into the EU market. Companies already do this routinely to comply with NAFTA rules in North America. It amounts to no more than a minor friction for large firms using modern software.

The EEA option greatly reduces the reach of the European Court (ECJ), and certainly stops euro-judges creeping into all areas of law through the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The ECJ would still have sway (through the EFTA court) over market matters but this would be tightly focused.

I do not wish to rehearse the argument over whether you can control free movement in the EEA. Clearly there is a bias towards free flows, but some controls are possible. There is already a precedent for Australian-style quotas. Liechtenstein does exactly that. I have no problem with this.

One can overstate the attraction of the EEA. Lorand Bartels, an international law don at Cambridge and senior counsel at Linklaters, has convinced me that Britain UK would have to join as a new member, subject to veto by others.  

It would not inherit the right of membership automatically as it steps out of the EU, as I previously thought. This would make us a supplicant - more vulnerable to horse-trading on other matters - and somewhat reduces the appeal of the EEA. 

There are others ways to skin a cat. John Springford from the Centre for European Reform has written an excellent paper on the possibilities of the EFTA-based 'Swiss' option. 

The Helvetophile Tory MEP Dan Hannan - once of this parish - has been a tireless advocate for such an arrangement, deeming it the closest possible relationship with the EU that is also compatible with full sovereignty. Call it medium-soft if you want.

What we hear instead are war cries from Tory ultras telling us that a soft Brexit is code for no Brexit. My fear is that the Government, frightened of such backbenchers, will bluff and bluster its way into the coming Brexit talks, with the wrong priorities, with too little public support, and against the backdrop of a deteriorating economy. 

This will lead to a showdown that can end only one way, since Downing Street has no credible back-up plan. Europe would call that bluff. Such a 'Greek' debacle would discredit Brexit beyond repair. 

The cardinal objective is to restore the primacy of UK law and to escape the expanding writ of the ECJ. It is to regain self-government under the supremacy of Parliament. How this is achieved is a secondary. How long it takes is immaterial. Ten years is nothing in the life of a nation.

To those readers who balk at any compromise, needed both to smooth this extraction process and to keep the great middle of British society on side, I can only reply: you risk losing the one chance in over forty years to jump off the federal express. The best is the enemy of the good.

David Fuller's view

I think what AEP says makes good sense from the British perspective.  What concerns me and what he does not discuss, is how the EU will respond. We have already heard Schaeuble say that the UK would be welcomed back if Brexit was overturned.  Macron has said virtually the same thing, so we can assume that many other European leaders hold similar views. Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Junker says it is a ‘tragedy’ that EU is celebrating its 60th anniversary without Britain.

The EU is in a position to block Britain’s efforts to join either the European Economic Area (EEA) or the European Free Trade Area, as I have said before, should it wish to. If so, what then?

Here is a PDF of AEP's column.

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