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Roland Smith: What might ‘Out’ actually look like?

Guest Blogger, 7 April 2016

This perfectly reasonable question keeps coming up again and again because people have a right to know what the alternative to EU membership is.

However the main voices on the Leave side seem reluctant to set it out in a single workable plan meaning the Remain campaign is now doing it for them. As one might expect, the Remain camp’s own plan for Leave assumes every possible worst-case scenario creating an absurd vision of calamity.

But neither side considers what the Government would realistically do in the event of a vote to leave.

If the Leave vote prevails on 23rd June, the UK will still have a Conservative government – one that has been badly bloodied by the referendum campaign and will once again need to turn its collective mind to uniting against what it sees as The Corbyn Terror.  Over half of Conservative MPs and most of the Cabinet will have voted “the wrong way”. The other half will have supported Leave but will recognise the need to bring the party’s Remainers and Leavers together. Assuming there’s no second vote, it will be in all of their interests to strike a pragmatic Leave deal.

The Civil Service will also come to the fore and take a major role in the exit process. They will be clear that Brexit is complex and risky if bungled. The British tend to seek evolution not revolution and this is particularly true for British governments and the Civil Service.

Ruling out a bespoke approach within the very constrained time available, they would look at existing “off the shelf” models and quickly conclude the most optimal way of de-risking Brexit would be to take up a European Economic Area-style position, which most likely means re-joining the European Free Trade Association. As Britain is already a contracting party to the EEA Agreement there is no serious obstacle and it would mean no regulatory divergence or tariffs as well as retaining freedom of movement for EU/EEA nationals. A Telegraph story on 18th March 2016 suggested that officials are quietly looking at doing exactly this and of course it would be in all interests (including the EU) to agree to a de-risked exit.

All the business scare stories about being cut off from the European single market would fade away, as would the scares around UK participation in various programmes such as the Science and Erasmus programmes. The concerns about British Expats on the continent and also the Northern Ireland question would recede and the SNP would find it much more difficult to get agitated by an EEA position.

The exit would still have a major centrifugal effect on the EU and it is then possible that other countries would consider leaving the EU to join Britain, Norway and Iceland in an EEA position. That rearrangement would be a forerunner to recasting the single market as a genuine Europe-wide market decoupled from the EU that all of Europe could then be a part of on reasonable terms.

Forty years of integration cannot be undone overnight but with a Leave vote, the journey will at least have started.

It is not therefore difficult to imagine a semi-Remain/semi-Leave Conservative Party cheering an EEA deal to the rafters. Coming together as one, they will then handle the transition pragmatically and present a strong, united front against Corbynite Labour in 2020.

Roland Smith is a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and he tweets at @whitewednesday

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