The Corner

National Security & Defense

Brexit: Fear and Leaving

Writing in Slate, Anne Applebaum, looking at matters from a europhile perspective, examines David Cameron’s grim little “renegotiation”:

This is worth noting:

What could happen if Britain votes to leave? As I said, we don’t know. It might have to drop out of Europe’s single market, in which case the British would pay more to trade in Europe. Several large companies have already declared that if that happens, they will leave. Alternatively, Britain might stay in the single market, but lose the right to influence EU regulations and be forced, as others are, to abide by them anyway. Presumably Britain would no longer be a part of EU trade negotiations and treaties, so would have to launch all of those from scratch. In any case, laws on employment, contracts, tax, and intellectual property would all be affected, and the legal wrangling will go on for years. “Law firms prepare for Brexit bonanza,” declared a recent headline in the Financial Times.

This is one of the issues that are dividing the “out” campaign(s) at the moment. There are those who maintain that Britain, currently the fifth largest economy in the world, could cut a pretty good deal for itself with the EU. They may well be right, but no one will know until that deal is done. That may alarm voters already anxious about taking a leap into what is being depicted by the in campaign as a very dark place indeed. That’s why others argue that the best way to proceed is for Britain to join Norway in the European Economic Area, an arrangement that would give the U.K. access to the single market and would involve very few of the complications to which Ms. Applebaum is referring.

The fact that the “Norway option” is less of a break from Brussels disappoints some euroskeptics (at some level it disappoints me), but they need to face the reality that it beats the most likely alternative — a nervous British electorate voting to stick with the EU, the devil it knows. They should also understand that such a move could be the starting-off point for a more profound disengagement with Brussels, a disengagement that will be all the more effective and all the less intimidating for being taken step-by-step. No, the Norway option is not ideal, but my feeling, at least at the moment, is that this is the Brexit route that is most likely to have a chance of success. The best place to see how it might work is the immensely detailed “Flexcit” prepared by EU Referendum’s Richard North. The latest version (PDF) stands at a modest 421 pages, but that is evidence of a complex reality very different, sadly, from one-leap-and-you’re-free.

The Norway option is presumably what Ms. Applebaum is referring to when she writes:

Britain might stay in the single market, but lose the right to influence EU regulations and be forced, as others are, to abide by them anyway.

That’s not entirely accurate. Norway has much more of a veto power than is generally understood. More than that, it can participate directly in setting the international rules that govern so much of global trade. As a member of the EU, Britain, often, cannot: Brussels has to negotiate on its behalf. Put another way, Norway sits at the top table. Britain does not.

Applebaum continues:

But the consequences would not be purely economic. If Britain were outside the EU, it would surely cease to be part of any form of common European foreign policy. As I’ve written elsewhere, Europe’s voice has grown notably weaker over the past couple of years, not least because Britain, preoccupied with its own problems, has scarcely been able to interest itself in foreign countries. A dramatic British exit would necessarily weaken Europe’s ability to speak unanimously even further.

Feature not bug: “Europe” (or, more accurately, the EU) is not a nation. The national interests of its member-states quite often — and quite legitimately — clash. That means an EU foreign policy has to proceed at the pace of the slowest. Far better to proceed with a series of “coalitions of the willing” made up of countries able to decide for themselves where their interest lies. Such coalitions may be smaller than the giant Brussels sloth but they would be quicker and more decisive — and they would enjoy the democratic legitimacy that an EU project would not.

Applebaum also worries about Scotland:

As for further consequences — choose your favorite scenario. Scotland is far more pro-European than England; an abrupt British exit could give the Scottish nationalist movement the boost it needs to leave the United Kingdom.

That would be a shame (and I write that as someone who is roughly half Scottish), but my guess, tempered by today’s low oil price, is that Scottish independence is coming anyway. At worst, Brexit might (and note that might) just speed it up a bit. Fear of a Scottish departure should not hold the English back.

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