Column: Brexit process would be messy

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SummaryThe UK needs to work out what, if any, special relationship it seeks to retain with the EU, if it decides to exit

Hugo Dixon

Imagine the British people vote to quit the European Union in the referendum David Cameron has promised to hold by 2017. What happens next? What, if any, special relationship would the UK seek to retain with the EU? Would it be able to negotiate what it wanted? And how would the economic damage unleashed by years of uncertainty be kept to the minimum?

These questions aren’t just troubling British businesses, the vast majority of which want to stay in the EU so they can enjoy full access to its single market. They are also worrying some eurosceptics who are concerned that, even if it would be good for Britain to quit the EU, the process of getting from A to B could be messy.

Hence, the launch of a 100,000 euros prize by the Institute for Economic Affairs, a UK eurosceptic think-tank. It will announce later this month the shortlist for the best essay to answer the question of what measures are needed to ensure a free and prosperous economy after an “out” vote in a putative referendum.

But don’t get your hopes up. The last time British eurosceptics launched a high-profile essay prize, the Wolfson Prize, it was to work out the best way for a country such as Greece to quit the euro. The winner, Roger Bootle, who is incidentally one of the judges of the IEA prize, came up with a not terribly realistic scheme based on maintaining secrecy until the last minute.

The main reason to worry that leaving the EU could be messy is because it won’t be clear after an “out” vote what relationship the British people will want to keep with their former partners. In particular, it won’t be obvious whether the electorate wants to stay in the EU’s single market or to leave that as well as the European political framework.

Losing full access to the single market would be economically damaging. After all, nearly half of the UK’s trade is with the EU. Many companies invest in Britain not just because of its flexible labour markets and English language, but also to use it as

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