Bungling Brexit

by Andrew Stuttaford

There have been few more consistent Brexiteers than Christopher Booker. The Great Deception, the book he co-wrote with EU Referendum’s Richard North, first published in 2005 and later updated (you can download it here) was a relatively rare British attempt to get to grips with the true nature of the EU  (‘ever closer union’ means what it says) and the often—how shall I put this—oblique manner in which its agenda has been advanced. It remains an indispensable read.

In the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, Booker described how, in the course of writing about the EU for 25 years, he has “learnt (among much else) three things” (my emphasis added):

The first, which came quite early as I began to understand the real nature of the supranational system of government we now lived under, was that we should one day have to leave it.

A second, as I came to appreciate just how enmeshed we were becoming with that system of government, was that extricating ourselves from it would be far more fiendishly complicated than most people realised.

The third, as I listened and talked to politicians, was how astonishingly little they seemed really to know about how it worked. Having outsourced ever more of our lawmaking and policy to a higher power, it was as if our political class had switched off from ever really trying to understand it.

And that, naturally enough, brings him to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to opt for a ‘hard Brexit’, the allegedly clean break that will leave a very large mess behind it.

Booker:

On leaving the EU [the UK] becomes what [the EU]  terms a “third country”, faced with all the labyrinth of technical barriers to trade behind which the EU has shut itself off from the outside world. Last week I read a series of expert papers explaining some of the mindbending regulatory hurdles we would then have to overcome in trying to maintain access to what is still by far our largest single overseas market.

Take, for instance, our chemicals and pharmaceutical industries, which currently account for a quarter of all our exports to the EU, which currently account for a quarter of all our £230 billion a year exports to the EU. By dropping out of the EU, these would lose all the “authorisations” which give them what Mrs May calls “frictionless” entry to its market, and the process of negotiating replacements for them would be so complex that it could take years.

Booker doubts that this could be resolved by simply ‘repatriating’ existing EU law back to the UK. I’d agree, for many reasons, not least the fact that that repatriation will be a one-off but EU regulation will continue to evolve in a manner that risks leaving British exporters running—and hurdling— to keep up.

Yes, of course, this could all theoretically be dealt with by a treaty or treaties, if those treaties are able to survive the EU’s tortuous ratification process, but how long might that take?

Booker:

[May] imagines that this colossal maze of technical problems can be sorted out in just two years, even though this would call on the EU to expend untold time and resources accommodating a country which wishes to leave it.

That could be too harsh. May does seem to be contemplating a longer transitional period (if she can get it), but that will be cold comfort to businesses wanting, no, needing to know where post-Brexit Britain will stand. 

Booker observes that these aspects of Britain’s divorce from the EU “could have been achieved infinitely more easily if Mrs May had not slammed the door on our continued membership of the EEA [the European Economic Area], which would guarantee us much the same “frictionless” access we enjoy now”.

That would be the ‘Norway option’ that you may have read about a  few  times in this very Corner, an option rejected by May for reasons so unclear that I cannot keep thinking the (doubtless unfair) thought that she has very little idea of what it actually is.

And then, Booker frets, there is May’s “terrifying” threat “that, if she is not given what she wants, she will simply “walk away”.”  He’s right to worry. May has said that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”, an elegant but false dichotomy: “No deal” for Britain would be a “bad deal”, a very bad deal indeed. 

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