Almost every day, there are media reports advocating a “quick” and “clean” break with the EU. These are mostly driven by long standing EUphobes who think that all we need do is repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, stop paying our subscriptions, and inform the EU we are no longer members. The Daily Express almost every day demands this and claims a substantial majority of the UK supports a “clean break”. This, of course, is the same Express that every Autumn predicts a long, abnormally cold Winter ahead that never materialises.
If the EU were a simple club, such as a golf club, in which we wish to resign membership as we’ve decided to stop playing golf, then such a “clean break” would be possible and even desirable. We understand and accept that if we ever want to go to the club again it would have to be as a guest of a full member and/or by paying a fee for each visit.
But (bearing in mind analogies are never accurate), we do in fact wish to keep playing golf just on different terms from before. In this analogy, we’ve decided we don’t want to pay the club subscription (as we’re subsidising the golf played by the poorer members of the club), don’t want to be forced to abide by the club rules, object to so many poor members using club facilities (despite advocating the club expand its membership base), and object to the Club rules that prevent me playing on the teams of other golf clubs in the county. However, we still want to play golf at the club, socialise with other members, and make use of its facilities.
In such a scenario we would need to agree some form of arrangement that allows us to do so. This might involve some form of existing arrangement (such as some associate membership, or by paying a fixed sum every time we wish to play). Or if we want different rights we might have to negotiate a bespoke deal. However, other club members might not wish to allow us to do this as it would undermine the club. Arguing that you’re the second richest member of the club and bring substantial business in and so should be given special treatment usually doesn’t work.
Similarly with the EU: the special trading relationships we have derive from our membership which requires us to pay a subscription and obey its rules. The special trading relationship will no longer operate if either or both of those obligations no longer apply. A “clean break” will automatically mean we revert to some default trading arrangements based on international law (ie the WTO). Neither the UK nor the EU can waive these rules for the other without consequences neither would wish to incur.
Hence the need for a negotiated Brexit in which the EU and UK seek some arrangement that ensures an orderly Brexit and which preserves the trading arrangements insofar as it is feasible to do so. Moreover, it is Britain that is voluntarily leaving the EU and it is in Britain’s interests to ensure such a transition. If Britain doesn’t like the outcome or its consequences, it is a result of its own choices. Just as if I resign from my golf club, I have no right to complain if I am no longer allowed to play golf there.
In the event of a “clean break” initiated by Britain, we can expect that immediately the EU will impose tariffs on imports from the UK and will instigate measures that ensure such imports conform to EU rules. Britain would have to do the same, or face complaints from other WTO members. As a result trade would be impeded, volume of trade would reduce, and profitability of exporters would be impacted.