When we leave, how could we get back after each variant of Brexit?
With latest rumours suggesting Theresa May is angling for an extension to the Brexit transition process, the prospect of Brexit happening before public opinion turns against it is becoming less and less likely.
There is the very real chance that by the end of another protracted transition period, much more than 50% of the country will support remaining in the EU.
In such a case, a relatively simple act of recanting Article 50 ought to see us reassumed into the EU with little fuss (I’m talking in terms of process, not political opinion). Whether there would be political will and courage to do so without another referendum is another matter.
But what if that weren’t to happen and instead we do indeed manage to break free from the so-called shackles of the European project?
How, if at all, could it be possible for us to return to the EU fold at some later date?
Of course, the simple explanation is that it would simply require the triggering of Article 49, which governs how states apply for membership, but this doesn’t take into account the political complexity of such a situation and how it would be affected by the existing deal in place.
It would all very much depend on the type of Brexit we ended up with.
As I’ve explained before, the Northern Ireland border issue in fact makes any kind of Brexit other than No-Deal nearly impossible (not to mention the myriad other factors at play), but let’s suspend those doubts just for now, and engage with the theoretical varieties of deals that exist.
Below is a table outlining the range of options:
Further to this, there is also the BINO option (Brexit in name only) which is sometimes referred to as the Norway Plus option, which is essentially everything Norway has, plus access to the Customs Union. Then, just to complicate things further, there is also a Norway Minus version which is something akin to what Norway has but without Freedom of Movement/Residence.
And of course, there is a No-Deal, World Trade Organisation rules Brexit, which is what the hardest of Hard-Brexiters want for some reason, and that would essentially mean having none of the above unless agreed to on an individual basis with each member state (which is something no EU state will negotiate until we actually leave).
So let’s take a look at each option and how it would affect a possible route into reentering the EU, at some undisclosed point in the future.
I’ll do my best not to comment on the likelihood of each option, just explain the facts on each… though I can’t make any promises.
So what would we lose in a BINO Brexit vs continued EU membership?
Mainly, the right to have a vote on legislation and regulations.
In this scenario, we’d still have access to the Customs Union, Single Market and abide by all EU laws (just not affect them).
In theory we would no longer be under the ECJ (European Court of Justice), but we would ensure cross-border supply chains continued unaffected, so in effect we would still have to abide by all the regulations under its jurisdiction.
Freedom of movement would be almost exactly the same, except perhaps as indicated in the table above, the right of residence might become slightly more complicated — for Norwegians and other members of the EEA (European Economic Area) currently, you must be working, self-employed or registered as jobseeker to gain residence in the EU— so if we adopted this model, there would be no more ex-pats retiring to the Costa Del Sol, unless we specifically found a way to individually agree that with Spain (and any other state).
Rejoining the EU from BINO
There might not be any coming back from BINO, at least not for a very long time.
The reason being, the political will on both sides of the channel for rejoining will be very much stymied, by what will be an almost full retention of all the rights we currently enjoy as a member state.
If we went for twenty years in this model, and didn’t rock the boat any further, and then decided “well we might as well rejoin”, the triggering of Article 49 to signal our intent to apply for membership would most likely be welcomed and likely fast-tracked as a previous member state.
But if we were to go through all of the complex legalities of a BINO Brexit, only to change our minds a year or two down the line, the appetite from EU member states to just give us a free pass back in will be much smaller.
As above but without access to the customs union (and possibly freedom of movement/residence).
Rejoining the EU from the Norway option
Pretty much the same, though the lack of access to the customs union may push political will further in the opposite direction, and so there could be a concerted effort to rejoin sooner than under BINO.
Realistically, as many have pointed out, there will have to be a customs union in place even if its not the customs union, for the sake of Northern Ireland and more.
And so the rigmarole of instating a customs union, then needing to disband it to rejoin the customs union, could put people off rejoining entirely, depending on how effective the new customs union proved to be.
The Swiss approach is both the most middle ground, and most complex of all options available.
It requires the agreement of a quite frankly ridiculous amount of individual regulations and processes in particular around the service industry, mainly because they aren’t part of the EEA. The Swiss don’t have full access to the Single Market for their banking sector and other services as a result, which would be a big blow to us considering our economy is 80% just that.
It would entail joining the EFTA (Economic Free Trade Association) to allow us to continue in the mode of free trade as well as continuing to allow Freedom of Movement, though like in the Norway model Freedom of Residence may be affected.
Switzerland are notoriously anti-external judicial “interference” and so whereas the Norway model implies a high-level of amenity toward EU institutions, in particular arbitration and judicial arms, the Swiss model inclines away from such a position.
This includes things such as consumer rights which in Switzerland are almost entirely regulated by domestic law.
Rejoining the EU from the Swiss option
The consumer rights issue is the prime example of what would be entailed in rejoining after a Swiss Brexit.
If we went down that route, the so-called “Great Repeal Bill” would have to have incorporated such vast amounts of laws and regulations into British Law, untangling them once again could be Kafka-esque. The only viable option might be a “Great “Great Repeal Bill” Repeal Bill”.
In terms of political will — there might be more than under the Norway model to return, from the UK side, but unlikely any favours on the European side of things.
This would be very much more than just a Brexit in name only, and so the political implications on the remaining EU states would invoke a colder, more functional response to any change in British opinion.
We might still get some kind of fast track but the chances that we could just go back to what we have now, and not make some kind of concession such as adopting the Euro or Schengen (or perhaps lots of smaller things than these) becomes less likely.
The Canada model is at the more extreme end of the Brexit options, and even in saying that is contingent on a trade model that has yet to in fact come in to effect — CETA (The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement).
Essentially where this differs from the EFTA is that Canada need not make contributions in the way Norway and Switzerland do in order to access tariff-fee trade on goods with the EU, but they face stricter provisions in such a deal.
They must, for example, provide strong proof that any goods to be traded are entirely made in Canada, so as to avoid any backdoor trade routes into the EU.
More crucially however for the UK, would be the fact that most of the service sector and the entirety of the banking sector isn’t covered by this deal.
If we were to go down this route then, not only would we would need to set up our own trade deal like CETA, we’d either have to sacrifice the financial industry’s access to things like passporting rights for their services in the EU, or agree to individual access with each state or somehow the EU as a whole.
Further complications arise when discussing social security. Whereas Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Lichtenstein have an agreement in place with the EU that their citizens are required only to pay contributions in one country, and likewise are covered across all member states (and the above four nations), Canada has no such agreement in place.
Again in practice this will mean negotiating a similar deal to those nations, but we then begin to blur the lines between a Canada deal and a Canada Plus deal.
Rejoining the EU from the Canada option
Where to start. This would be a big change all round. It’s perhaps the first of the Brexit models that symbolises a real break from being aligned with the EU. It would indicate we really do see ourselves as more an island in the Atlantic than a continental peninsula.
From a European perspective, the ramifications for the EU project are stark. Such enormous rejection of the political status quo will either result in a further strengthening of the union or a significant weakening. It won’t just stay the same.
As such, any change of mind from the British public towards rejoining would be met with strong consequences. If the EU was in a position of strength, it would be quite likely that it would simply delay and dawdle over the reintegration process — no fast-tracking this time. They’d have the upper hand, so could also quite easily make Schengen or Euro currency participation a red-line part of the deal.
In the case of weak EU, assuming it was still strong enough to be desirable to rejoin for the British public, different factors come into play.
The likelihood that the British economy in such a scenario would be strong enough itself to join and adopt the Euro is unlikely. It would crash everything.
Equally though, any deal to rejoin would see the EU want a much bigger contribution than even currently, to offset any damage done from our leaving — an entrance fee, if you will.
In the almost completely impossible event that the British economy is strong, the EU is weak, and we still want to rejoin the union… we might convince them all to adopt the pound and replace all Health and Safety regulations with the phrase “just use some common sense”. What? It could happen.
Like the Canada option in some ways, but also quite different in others, in that rather than being a free trade agreement between two big trade areas, the Turkish model is an association agreement, which essentially means that they must adopt the common EU tariffs on imports from non-EU countries, without a say on those tariffs.
As such, they have a customs union with the EU.
Otherwise, in terms of Freedom of Movement, Residence and the like, as with Canada, they have specific agreements in place with either the EU or individual member states.
Rejoining the EU from the Turkey option
Symbolically perhaps ever so slightly less of a two fingers up to our European cousins. The terminology alone, “association”, indicates we still see ourselves aligned in some way.
The big difference between us and Turkey, is that Turkey want to be in the EU and aren’t, and we don’t want to be in the EU, and are.
The deal they have in place is essentially a pre-cursor to them, at some point perhaps joining the EU, so they are willing to do most of what’s necessary to ingratiate themselves.
If public opinion changed in the UK, this might in fact be a similar position to which we’d find ourselves.
Like in the Canada examples, the only way we’d have the stronger hand in negotiations would be if we had the stronger economy (which again, begs the question would we want to rejoin in such a scenario?), otherwise we would have to do pretty much as the EU wanted — Schengen, Euro, even a path towards full Federalism— and generally be on our very best behaviour.
The prospect of a No-Deal Brexit is much worse than any of the options above… and they’re all bad.
If you read any of the recent news of the government’s own impact assessment, you’ll agree it really is an apocalyptic path.
Just an example of the lovely consequences of No-Deal:
EU Citizens in the UK would no longer have the right to reside, work etc. and vice versa for UK citizens in the EU.
WTO rules tariffs on literally everything. Exporting and importing would become difficult to impossible depending on the sector in the short term.
Ports congestions for customs declarations. Literal gridlock at Dover and Calais. Delays or obstruction to goods (like food and petrol) coming in or going out.
On the customs issue, a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, effectively reneging on the Good Friday Agreement.
In theory, planes grounded in the UK and prevented from landing on the continent and medicine stopped from being transported across borders.
Of course all of these sound like horror stories, and many think common sense will prevail and various deals will be struck on each issue across the transition period or on the eve of a No-Deal Brexit. But then we are talking about Brexit here. Has common sense yet prevailed at any point in this process?
I’m not saying it won’t, I’m saying it may well be as likely that it won’t, as that it will.
Rejoining the EU from a No-Deal Brexit
In some ways, it would be the easiest re-entry, particularly if we arrived at the chaos of the above. Article 49 could be triggered on the day we leave and we could be back in the EU by teatime — it would serve all parties for that to happen in such a scenario.
In fact, such a path could occur even in the face of staunch political opposition. If Brexit day resulted in queues at the ports and grounded planes, there would be a case to be made by whoever was in power that triggering Article 49 was for the good of the country — somewhere between an executive order and Martial law.
More likely however, would be some hodge-podge of deals struck at the last minute to allow things to keep functioning.
In such a scenario, re-entering might require that political will and public mandate has totally reversed, or at least shown support for another referendum
If the economy begins to tank or people start to wish they didn’t have to fill out a visa every time they go on holiday, such a reversal may just occur.
It hardly feels optimistic though, as a remainer, to be hoping for the worst outcome in the hope it will result in a huge mea-culpa from the populace, but in the case of a No-Deal Brexit, that might be all we can cling to.
As you can probably deduce from the tone of this piece, I am not pro-Brexit.
Personally, I believe it is the most self-destructive course of action a population has ever inflicted on itself; a backward-looking, xenophobia-baiting, farcical call to democracy, intended as a way just to keep David Cameron in power, and instead resulting in a cataclysmic split within his own party, and within the nation as a whole.
Decisions of such magnitude should never be given up to a popular vote, otherwise what is the point of having a representative democracy?
Regardless, we must now live with the effects of the vote, and while I and countless others will continue to campaign against the idiocy ever occurring, we must put in place contingencies for such an eventuality.
Knowing how to return to the EU, should public opinion and political will ever begin to come to its senses, is part of the battle. If a clear re-entry plan is stated categorically, it allows for less ambiguity that could be exploited by the other side.
This needs to be hammered home in the strongest possible way, that we would be better off back in. The greatest failing of the remain campaign was that it took this notion for granted.
What I only touched on in this piece is the fact that almost none of the options above are actually politically viable. If we somehow secure a BINO Brexit, the concern is that we’ve unleashed such malicious forces, that such an exit won’t sate them. May and the Tories are hanging on such a thin thread that they must appease these forces as far as possible, or face losing power.
And so of all exit options, the most likely is the also the most depressing and horrifying — No-Deal.
As I explained, such a scenario will cripple the country, and one imagines will surely result in at least some swing towards rejoining. It will also, as I mentioned, be the easiest reentry route.
None of us will revel in saying “we told you so”, but if it takes those consequences for Britain to shake of its collective delusion, then I suppose, so be it.🔷
(This piece was originally published on The Blog!)