Brexit campaign failing to address how EU relations will be recast
Leave side’s ideas chime with anti-establishment attitudes in play
George Galloway, a leading figure in the campaign to secure a British exit from the EU, and one of the most polarising politicians in the UK. Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images
Britain’s EU referendum is still four months away and the campaigning has scarcely begun, but the strengths and vulnerabilities of the two sides are already apparent. The Remain side is united, organised and immensely well-resourced and it has, in David Cameron, a leader of unrivalled authority and political skill.
However, while it has the advantage of arguing in defence of the status quo, it is pushing against popular discontent with Brussels and Westminster and unhappiness over immigration.
The Leave side is in tune with the anti-establishment spirit of the times and its message chimes with the public’s scepticism about Europe and a nostalgia for an imagined past of stability and social cohesion. The campaign though is divided and incoherent, and two of its most prominent figures – Nigel Farage and George Galloway – are among the most polarising politicians in Britain.
The Leave campaign’s greatest weakness, however, lies in its failure to answer the question of what happens next if Britain leaves the EU and what kind of arrangement with Europe it should pursue.
Vote Leave, the campaign which includes most pro-Brexit Conservatives, says that very little should happen immediately after a vote to leave. Britain should start negotiations with the EU before repealing section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 that enshrines the supremacy of EU law and which Eurosceptics view as the cornerstone of Britain’s renunciation of national sovereignty.
“We should repeal this fundamental law while simultaneously incorporating all existing EU law into UK law and beginning the process of sorting EU rules into three basic categories: clearly stupid things that are repealed, things that are amended, things that either make sense or are themselves global rules we would accept anyway (or both) and are kept,” Vote Leave says.
As part of its exit deal, Britain should negotiate a trade deal with the EU, something Vote Leave expects to be a straightforward process. “There is a European free- trade zone from Iceland to the Russian border and we will be part of it. The heart of what we all want is the continuation of tariff-free trade with minimal bureaucracy,” it says. “Countries as far away as Australia have mutual recognition agreements with the EU that deal with complex customs (and other ‘non-tariff barrier’) issues. We will do the same.”
The Ukip-dominated Leave.eu campaign is even more relaxed, suggesting trade with the EU could continue on just the same terms if Britain leaves. “Given that we buy more from the EU than it buys from us, it is unlikely that the EU would seek to change this in the event of us leaving,” it says.
When the government published a White Paper this week on the alternatives to EU membership, Leave campaigners dismissed it as a “dodgy dossier”. Britain would not follow the path of Norway, Switzerland, Canada or Turkey in its post-Brexit relationship with the EU, but it would find a solution of its own, they said.
It is an irrefutable fact, however, that in all third-party relationships with the EU, there is a direct relationship between the level of access granted to the single market and the number of EU rules any country must accept.
As a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), Norway is more integrated into the single market than any non-EU country. In return for such access, it must pay into the EU budget, adopt most new single market rules without being able to influence them and accept the free movement of people from the EU.
Switzerland’s bilateral agreements with the EU involves similar obligations, while Canada, which has an advanced free trade agreement with the EU, has to accept EU rules when exporting to Europe but has much less access to the single market.
All of these countries, including Norway, are outside the EU customs union and, the White Paper warns, if Britain were also to be outside it, there would be a return of customs checks on the border, while the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland would be at risk.
“It is not clear that the Common Travel Area could continue to operate with the UK outside the EU, and Ireland inside, in the same way that it did before both countries joined the EU in 1973,” it says. “Under most of the alternatives described in this paper, the UK would be outside the EU customs union and so trade across the Border with Ireland would be subject to customs controls and rules on the origin of products.”