Martin Westlake / Oct 2020
On 31 January 2020, the United Kingdom formally left the European Union. The question whether the UK would really leave was thus definitively answered. From the EU’s point of view, the UK is now a third country. The only way back would be to apply again. But, if one question has been definitively answered, another remains. Just what sort of future relationship will the UK enjoy with the EU? This was always a question of obvious significance for both sides yet, strangely if understandably, it was hardly debated, let alone answered, in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. Moreover, it is a question that can only be answered by both sides together.
Once the referendum result was known, debates began, in the UK and in the EU, about what the answer to the question might be, bookended by debates about what it could be and what it should be. Alternative models were suggested, frequently associated with particular countries; ‘Norway’, ‘Canada +’, ‘Switzerland’, ‘Singapore on the Thames’, ‘Ukraine’, and so on. What exactly do such models entail? How have they evolved? What are their perceived advantages and disadvantages, especially for the countries concerned?
In Outside the EU a series of experts examine these models – to the extent that they are models – and consider how relevant, or not, they might be to the future UK-EU relationship. As the studies demonstrate, each country makes its own calculation about what relationship is most appropriate. That calculation will, in one way or another, take into account a country’s history, its traditions, its size, its sense of itself and of its future. That calculation will also consider perceived advantages and disadvantages, economic and other (political, democratic, constitutional, cultural). The UK is no different in that regard. And nor are the twenty-seven European countries currently subsumed within the EU, although their membership obfuscates very different routes to what seems for the time being to be the same – unknown – destination.
Other contributors in Outside the EU look at Brexit from different historical perspectives. Who remembers the 1954 Association Agreement the UK signed with the newly-established European Coal and Steel Community and the calculations behind it? What insights might that experience give into the sort of arrangement that the UK and the EU might now negotiate? In 1973, following its accession to the then EEC, the UK largely turned its back on its former Commonwealth trading partners. How did Australia’s and New Zealand’s economies cope with such a sudden loss of preferential market access? Are there lessons in that experience from which the UK could learn? And what about the longer term? What is the EU itself likely to become in the years ahead, especially given the geopolitical context of shifting balances between the EU, Eurasia and the US in world affairs? Different possible scenarios might result in an as yet un-envisaged future relationship.
Other contributors look at different issues related to the Brexit process that will have to be resolved in one way or another. What of the UK Crown Dependencies, Overseas Territories and Gibraltar? How far will the UK seek to look after their interests, and how far will it be able to do so? What about the thorny conundrum that is the island of Ireland and, in particular, the implementation of the Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement on Ireland and Northern Ireland, so much in the news at the moment? What of the UK’s future relationship with the EU in the context of security and defence policy? And what about the UK’s continued membership of the Council of Europe, an organisation it did so much to create, but which also requires its Member States to pool their sovereignty and accept an overriding jurisdiction?
Brexit is du jamais vu; a country deliberately withdrawing from the EU and changing, if not reducing, its existing trading patterns. There are other countries dotted around the European continent who have not yet settled on their future relationships with the EU as it, and they, evolve. In, or out? Near, or far? What sort of near? What sort of far? At what price? Economic, democratic? There are demonstrable economic advantages to full membership of the EU. Many would argue that membership brings clear political advantages. But these advantages are, potentially, offset by perceived disadvantages in terms of democracy, autonomy and national identity. In turn, those perceived disadvantages can be offset by opting for something less than full membership. However, anything less than full membership also comes with economic and political disadvantages. But European countries – including the UK – have to acknowledge that the EU will remain a trade and regulatory giant, exercising the ‘Brussels effect’, whether they are in it or outside it.
The UK and the EU must continue to co-exist and interrelate. Ultimately, ways will be found and a new relationship will evolve. As the UK’s former permanent representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, has written, Outside the EU is ‘an excellent primer for how to think about the next chapter.’