Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is Why Vote Leave.
We are unused to referendums in this country, so we tend to think in terms of general elections. Behind much of the coverage of the EU debate is the assumption that voting to leave somehow means putting the Leave campaigners into office.
Hence the interest in what precise alternative we favour. Do we want Britain to be “like” Switzerland or “like” Norway or “like” Canada or “like” Jersey? (It’s worth noting, en passant, that the phrasing of the question demonstrates its silliness: the fact that no two non-EU states have identical deals with Brussels makes a nonsense of the idea that Britain would precisely mimic any of them. Plainly, we’d have our own deal, tailored to suit our own interests.)
I have written before about the sort of arrangement that we could realistically expect. But my opinions, if you think about it, are not relevant, because I won’t be overseeing the negotiations. I can point in general terms to the status enjoyed by the other European states that are outside the EU: no tariffs; reciprocal arrangements on healthcare, university access and police co-operation; autonomy in agriculture, fisheries, defence, immigration, criminal justice, culture and regional policy. But my views on, say, how much we should subsidise our farmers matter a lot less than those of the farms minister.
A referendum is best understood as voters instructing their government, rather as a client instructs his barrister. Voting to leave means giving ministers a mandate: we’d be telling them to negotiate our departure on the best possible terms.
Remain campaigners don’t want us to understand this. They want to make the prospect of withdrawal seem as abrupt and as scary as possible. Hence their suggestion that a Leave vote on 23 June would somehow start a countdown, that we’d have two years to negotiate a new deal and that, if no agreement were reached within that time, we’d in some unspecified way be outside all trade arrangements.
A moment’s thought reveals how absurd all this is. A vote to leave won’t start any countdowns. Ministers would simply be under instruction to find departure terms that suit Britain – and, indeed, that suit the rest of the EU. They would presumably begin by holding informal talks with the Brussels institutions and the other member states. Then, when the broad parameters were agreed, they would begin formal negotiations. These might be held under Article 50, the clause introduced by the Lisbon Treaty which obliges the EU to reach a trade deal with a departing state within two years; or they might be held under a different intergovernmental structure. It might be possible to reach a mutually beneficial deal very quickly. Or the other EU members might prefer, for reasons of administrative convenience, for the new arrangements to come into effect in 2019 when they choose their new Parliament and Commission, so as not to have to recalculate their voting weights twice.
The point is that nothing would be agreed until both sides were content. The Prime Minister told the House of Commons a couple of weeks ago that he would remain in office to implement a Leave vote. Since he has also promised to stand down before the next general election, that is the effective deadline. It gives us plenty of time to find arrangements that suit us, the rest of the EU and, indeed, our other trading partners around the world.
Whether independence comes into effect in 2017, 2018 or 2019, what will it look like? Well, the first day after Brexit will look pretty much like the previous day. All our existing arrangements will remain in place until one side or the other chooses to abandon them. We’d begin from a position of having all the same technical standards as the other EU states, all the reciprocal deals on social security, all the trade deals. What Brexit means is the freedom to start altering those deals.
Now plainly there will be some alterations: otherwise there’d be no point in Brexit. There will be areas where we want to pull out of common EU policies, because the cost of compliance outweighs the benefit of having the same rules as neighbouring states. At the same time, the other member states may well want to push ahead with deeper integration without us. But that process will be gradual and cumulative.
The man who put it best, oddly enough, was the leader of the Remain side, Stuart Rose: “It’s not going to be a step change, it’s going to be a gentle process.”
Lord Rose went on, before his horrified spin-doctors could shut him up: “Nothing is going to happen if we come out of Europe in the first five years, probably. There will be absolutely no change. Then, if you look back ten years later, there will have been some change, and if you look back 15 years later there will have been some.”
Quite. The really radical break is not voting to leave; it’s voting to stay, and thus acquiescing in the EU’s continuing economic, political, fiscal and military amalgamation, in more bailouts, in the unfolding migration disaster.
Voting to leave is the way to avoid these risks. It is, for that reason, the safer option. Leaving won’t be a sudden rupture, but a gradual reorientation. The United Kingdom will begin to follow a different trajectory, away from the enervated and distempered eurozone and toward more opulent markets across the oceans. Leaving, in short, is the conservative choice.