Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
One of the strange things about the Brexit debate at the moment is the persistence of certain idées fixes about the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal and about its alternatives which are repeated by critics. There are of course principled reasons for opposing the deal – and Paul Goodman outlined his view this morning. But there are also various confusions. Here is a mythbuster of a Brexit dozen of them:
Myth 1 – The deal isn’t Brexit. This is often repeated; yet it is simply preposterous. The deal would take the UK out the EU. We would no longer be a member state, and would have no commissioner, no MEPs, no compulsory financial contributions (once our exit bill is settled), and no voting rights. We would basically be out of the EU legal order, with a treaty relationship with it. Yes, there would be some ongoing constraints – most notably through the backstop protocol – but the deal is Brexit.
Myth 2 – The deal would mean Brexit In Name Only (BRINO) or staying in the Single Market. Again, this is untrue. The deal takes us definitively out the Single Market. Even in the backstop, we would be free of practically all Single Market rules and could end free movement and diverge on services. The main exception is that we would have to maintain the stock of existing goods and agriculture rules in Northern Ireland (plus a few other rules around the Single Energy Market and so on). We could reject any new goods or agriculture rules from applying anywhere in UK, although we would be obliged to follow updates at least in Northern Ireland.
Myth 3 – The UK would be a vassal state. How? After the standstill 21-month transition, we would be free to reject new EU rules in almost all areas, even if we ended up in the backstop. We wouldn’t have to pay ongoing membership contributions; we would keep all the customs revenue we collected (rather than ‘sending’ the majority to Brussels as we do now).
Myth 4 – The UK will have to join a customs union to leave backstop. A future Government could opt to join a customs union to escape the backstop (though this would leave regulatory issues unsolved). But we couldn’t be forced to do so. In the Political Declaration, the EU accepts that the “future relationship” will “respect the result of the 2016 referendum including with regard to the development of its [the UK’s] independent trade policy” and the EU note that “any arrangements which supersede the [backstop] Protocol are not required to replicate its provisions in any respect, provided that the underlying objectives continue to be met”.
Myth 5 – In the backstop, every consignment passing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland or the EU will require a physical certificate to be wet stamped (as in using ink). This is wrong. It is true that there will be some documentation required, but the UK has stated that this will be electronic. And of course, a technological solution to the Irish border – such as Max Fac – would also require documentation. The only way to ensure entirely frictionless trade with the EU is to stay in both the Single Market and Customs Union, which the UK rejects.
Myth 6 – The backstop means a “hard” border in the Irish Sea. No. Some regulatory checks will be required, but these will be primarily in market (for goods) and conducted by UK (not EU) authorities. There will be some additional checks on agricultural products (SPS checks) crossing the Irish Sea, but there are already some such checks. As per Myth 5, there will need to be some certification for customs agreed, but it won’t be wet stamped & should be electronic. In the backstop, there can be no tariffs or origin requirement rules on any intra-UK trade.
Myth 7 – The backstop is unique because it doesn’t have a unilateral exit mechanism. In reality, there are many examples of treaties without clear exits – the UN Charter, the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the NATO Charter. The UK should seek a better exit, but to say it is unique in not having one is wrong.
Myth 8 – The UK wouldn’t be able to do trade deals while in the backstop. It’s true that we would not be able to offer to lower our tariffs on goods/food, but we could sign and implement deals on services, customs procedures, investor protections and qualification recognition. And, as per Myth 4, the EU recognises that an objective of the future relationship is an independent trade policy for the UK allowing us to do comprehensive trade deals.
Myth 9 – in the event of No Deal, the UK could use GATT Article XXIV to secure interim tariff free trade with EU. This article can only apply if the EU agrees, and they have so far been clear they won’t. It is strange for critics to complain of EU intransigence, yet also assume that it would play ball in the event No Deal.
Myth 10 – in the event of No Deal the UK could keep the £39 billion Brexit bill. This only works if you want Never Deal, not No Deal. Even if the UK walks away, we are going to end up settling accounts before we do a trade deal with EU. Anyway, half the money is to pay for the standstill transition we requested.
Myth 11 – if the UK signs the deal we will be forced to jeopardise Five Eyes, join an EU army, or lose control of our benefits system and taxation. I can find almost no factual basis for these odd assertions. Some are drawn from confused misreadings of the non-binding political declaration.
Myth 12 – the Conservative manifesto committed the Government to No Deal. The manifesto actually said no deal is better than a bad deal – and the Government view is this isn’t a bad deal. The manifesto also committed to leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. This deal takes the UK out the Single Market; and the political declaration points to a destination outside the customs union too. Moreover, the Tories didn’t win a majority in 2017 so it’s hard to implement the manifesto. Plenty of other bits of the manifesto have fallen away for obvious reasons, from social care to boundary reviews.
Myth 13 – there’s a mandate for No Deal. In fact, Vote Leave promised a deal. It said that the UK would join a free trade zone from Iceland to Russian border – this deal provides for that.
In sum, there are many myths about the Prime Minister’s deal and its alternatives. It’s certainly not perfect, and some aspects of the backstop are uncomfortable and sub-optimal. Much would be improved by a sharper exit mechanism. Nonetheless, it often seems that the deal is not given a fair assessment, particularly against the other options actually available. Some critics clearly have something approaching a pathological mistrust of EU. Others have made a good faith decision to oppose it, on balance. But for those open to persuasion, look at the actual facts of the deal before it’s too late.