It was interesting that “Leave.EU” made such a fuss of an opinion poll, in fact conducted in April when the General Election was called, showing the number of people prepared to be worse off in order to leave the EU. Such polls are nonsense of course (it is easy to say you are prepared to be worse off, but the real issue is what happens when you are), but it was telling that the Leave side has now moved towards a basic acceptance that leaving the EU will make us worse off. That is not what they said before 23 June 2016!
Then last week we saw an apparent about-turn by the UK Government, pushing now for a “transitional” Customs arrangement which would have the effect of maintaining the Customs Union with the EU. This was sold as an attempt to make the switch easy for business, but it is in fact an implicit acceptance that leaving the Customs Union is economically damaging – i.e., again, it will make us all worse off.
A quick note on the EU Customs Union, as it is often incorrectly reported. The EU Customs Union encompasses the EU and only the EU. Contrary to many indications, it does not include non-EU countries such as Turkey or even Andorra. It does, however, itself have Customs Union arrangements with some non-EU countries – in other words, there is an EU-Turkey Customs Union, an EU-Andorra Customs Union and so on. Therefore, in fact it is not inconsistent for the UK Government to say it intends to leave the EU Customs Union (in fact, it will have to if it proceeds to leave the EU) but also to form a Customs Union with it (that new arrangement would be a UK-EU Customs Union). It should then be noted that no Customs Union arrangement entered into by the EU includes agricultural goods.
Harder line Leavers are wary of “transitional” arrangements and, from their point of view, with good reason. If it is damaging effectively to leave the Customs Union in March 2019, when will it not be damaging? In other words, why enter into a “transitional” arrangement just to delay the damage into the next decade? Should it not simply be accepted, if maintenance of “frictionless customs arrangements” is a good thing, that such “transitional” arrangements should become “permanent”.
This then, of course, leads us to all kinds of other issues. If it is important to maintain “frictionless customs arrangements” (in effect to remain in Customs Union with the EU), then is it not important to maintain “frictionless trade arrangements” by remaining within the European Economic Area? If it is damaging to leave the Customs Union cleanly on 30 March 2019, why is it not damaging to leave the European Economic Area on that date? What is so important about customs which does not apply more basically to trade?
Other issues have also arisen over the summer. Leaving the EU means leaving Euratom, and thus potentially losing access to highest international radiotherapy products and standards – the response again was to suggest a new “UK-EU” relationship. There has also been talk of how the UK would retain access to Erasmus exchange programmes, noting that these were denied to Switzerland when it changed its national immigration policy (on the back of a narrow referendum in which the winning side declared the EU would not really act in the way it actually did, note well). This list of losses will only become longer and longer, to the extent that pressure will rise for a “UK-EU” solution to almost everything.
In the end, it is quite obvious that trying to maintain “frictionless” customs arrangements, free trade, agreements in areas such as health research and environmental standards, maintenance of educational exchanges, and a whole raft of other things will in the end render leaving utterly pointless. Such an outcome would leave most Remainers baffled and most Leavers dissatisfied. It is a total nonsense.
It is time for a fundamental re-think. In June 2016 the UK electorate indicated a preference for leaving the EU but, in June 2017, when Theresa May requested a free hand to do so in any way she saw fit she was denied one by that same electorate. This may be taken as a mandate for “leaving the EU but not at any price”.
So why not introduce some honesty into the debate, accept the population is divided and in any case it was being offered things which were never available, and instead seek a new form of association with the EU which seeks to answer some of the issues raised by the referendum without causing a wilful economic catastrophe and the inevitable destruction of vital public services which would accompany it?