Sunday, 17 January 2016

Yes, we do know what Brexit looks like

It's the morning after the referendum and the word handed down to Whitehall staff is "make Brexit happen". Our officials, who would have done at least some preparatory work, will immediately conclude that Brexit is both complex and risky if mishandled.

Their objectives will be to get us out with the minimum of fuss and quickly. In this they will seek existing legal instruments already at their disposal. Since we are already in the EEA, there is no real obstacle to retaining EEA status - and Efta is as safe a means as any to ensure continuity of trade deals. It ensures no divergence in regulations and it means no tariffs. Business continued entirely unaffected.

Since that means accepting freedom of movement, nothing changes and no extra resources are required immediately to "control" the borders. That is obviously a big plus to the arrangement in that no extra funds have to be found and there need not be any immediate rush to do anything. That will be the principal consideration for our officials. They will be seeking the path of least resistance and so long as it achieves the basic proposition of ending the political union with the EU, then they have achieved what they have been instructed to do.

A great many Brexiteers will bitch and moan about it, but in actual fact, we will have left the EU. What we can say is our government will be in no hurry to start meddling or seeking special concessions since Brexit in and of itself is sufficient enough of a diplomatic effort. And since it minimises the risk and disruption for us, it minimises the risk and disruption for the EU. Since a mishandled settlement means a recession for both, neither party will be looking to aggravate or antagonise.

This will naturally mean adopting most, if not all "EU regulations" and still paying a substantial amount into the EU budget. We have made our case as to why it is still worth it ad nauseam and this post will not go over the same ground. This is just to settle a pointless argument.

The many listed alternatives are mainly suggested on the basis of multiple flawed assumptions. As much as some are sub-optimal they are also implausible and based on a two-dimensional understanding of the issues. They involve serious renegotiations that would take years and would in fact produce the very uncertainty that the Remain camp speaks of and would be struck down by the civil service on those grounds alone. As much as our civil service is maligned, these are not stupid people we're talking about. They will be realistic and pragmatic and risk averse.

What matters is that we will have made the symbolic gesture that we are going our own way and seek to negotiate for ourselves and repatriate policy making. Our subsequent niggles with the EU can be sorted out afterward over a number of years without any immediate deadlines - and as part of Efta, newly strengthened by UK membership, we will have a good deal of leverage - and in fact all of Efta will likely share our complaints about the existing relationship.

There will be no "punishment beatings"as some suggest. There are laws agianst such petulance and the EU is nothing if not a rules based organisation. To attempt to punish the UK would be to risk global confidence in the EU and the European economy. Ill-advised though the EU may be at times, it does not have a deathwish and will enter negotiations in good faith.

In short, if we do vote to leave, in the short to medium term, most are going to be surprised how little effect it has either way on just about anything. It will take time before we start to see the benefits of increased participation in global regulatory affairs and it will take time to reshape our agreements with the EU. It will also take time to bring new trading partners into the fold as we set about removing technical barriers to trade through our newly repatriated aid programme.

The only thing that will be noticeable immediately is a change of mood in the country. It will focus minds and shake our domestic politics out of its parochialism as politicians realise that the grown up affairs are once again their responsibility. We may even see our media once more reporting news. Culturally, that can only be a good thing.

The reality is that there is no appetite in Whitehall or the government for risk taking and big bang diplomatic events. There will be no grand gestures and very little in the way of table thumping talks. The main question on both sides of the Channel is "how do we do this without fuss?". In that, they will arrive at roughly the same conclusions we did.

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