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Common sense not nostalgic yearning should be at the heart of Britain’s EU departure debate

A Brexit would come at great cost and provide little benefit

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2016, 11:54am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2016, 11:54am

As the June date for a British referendum on withdrawing from the EU approaches, truth will increasingly be about what people can be persuaded to believe. Passion and innate preferences will supplant reasoned debate.

Nobody can possibly know how things will play out if Britain exits. Choosing departure from the EU over a less than perfect status quo is risky. Risk-taking can be associated with great rewards, but the sheer folly of taking some risks courts disaster. Britain leaving the EU may be one such risk.

When Britain joined Europe in the early 1970s, its GDP per capita had fallen below that of France, Germany and Italy. Today, average income in the UK is higher than in those countries. Not all of this is attributable to EU membership. But at least the EU has not been bad for Britain in these terms.

The core case for Brexit seems to rest on a yearning for greater independence. Brussels has appropriated the nation’s autonomy. Too much sovereignty has been pooled and must be taken back. Britain needs to shake itself free from EU bureaucracy and create its own dynamism. It must protect its own borders.

Britain will have no voice - it can only negotiate as an external party

Sovereignty arguments are two-edged. Unless sovereignty is denied through irresistible coercion, it can be pooled voluntarily. Withdrawing from the pool means exercising less sovereignty over the decisions of others.

Britain can withdraw unilaterally from the EU, taking its sovereignty with it, but the other 27 member states will determine the relationship that follows. Britain will have no voice - it can only negotiate as an external party.

Neither the rest of the EU nor the majority of its people want Britain to leave. A decision to do so could provoke an ungenerous response from some in the EU. A harsh response in post-Brexit negotiations would discourage others from contemplating exit.

The EU has a lot to loose from fragmentation, and has negotiated to try to head off Brexit. What was on offer was never going to satisfy the exit camp. Some argue a vote to leave would trigger more negotiations and ensure another referendum. Political dynamics make this most unlikely.

Britain may be big, but the EU is a lot bigger. Britain takes one-tenth of all EU exports. The EU takes half of Britain’s. The country’s much-touted trade deficit with the EU is only with Spain and Germany – the rest are in deficit with Britain. Most economic forecasts associate a reduction in economic growth with Brexit.

Britain cannot expect to maintain pre-existing access conditions to the EU market unless it accepts much of what seemingly explains the wish to exit. The cases of Norway and Switzerland are instructive. In exchange for access akin to that of insiders, they submit to single-market regulations, contribute to the EU budget, and accept free movement of EU nationals within their borders.

It would be misleading to assert, as some in favour of exit do, that Britain could simply or quickly establish independent economic relationships with third parties that track or better its previous EU-based relationships, let alone forge entirely new ones.

If the Scottish vote on Brexit were in favour of staying in while the rest of the UK voted to leave, a second secession referendum would very likely be triggered in what could be a new nation seeking to remain in the EU. Brussels might be sympathetic. Britain would be further diminished.

What we do know is that following a pro-exit vote the short-term would be messy and uncertain, taking years to resolve. Thousands of EU regulations with direct effect, and much else besides, would have to be reconsidered. A prolonged, painful and costly hiatus would surely follow, like the anguish of any broken marriage.

What sense does it make to pursue what looks much like a negative sum game for all concerned? Is it a nostalgic yearning for past glories, embedded in some British hearts, that will drive the nation over a cliff? We should forget opinion polls and have faith in popular common sense.

Patrick Low is a fellow at the University of Hong Kong’s Asia Global Institute