Brexit poses real dangers to the UK's economic stabilityby Anatole Kaletsky / March 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson describes it as “Project Fear,” but there is another name for the strongest argument for Britain to stay in the European Union. A parent telling a child not to play with matches or a friend who prevents a drunken companion from getting into the driver’s seat calls this common sense. Politicians who describe the economic risks of Brexit are castigated for trying to “frighten the voters” and advised by media commentators to present a positive, idealistic story.
But when we try to stop a drunk from driving or a child setting fire to the curtains, we do not appeal to their idealism or remind them of the joys of life. We warn of the terrible consequences that could result from reckless actions and in doing this, our burden of proof is very low. We don’t need to prove that the house will burn down or an innocent pedestrian will be run over. It is enough to say that drunk driving makes a calamity more likely and is therefore banned.
The fact that an accident may not happen this particular evening or that no one can predict exactly where one might occur, is no excuse for drunk driving. Yet this is exactly the bogus logic of Boris’s attacks on “Project Fear.” More surprisingly and shamefully, it is has become the habit of supposedly impartial media commentators to give the arguments of drunken drivers and their responsible spouses equal logical weight.
Consider the studies published by the Cabinet Office about the legal consequences of Brexit and the alternative trading agreements that could replace EU membership. The analysis presented was largely factual and undeniable, but the Brexit camp simply ignored the facts and launched an ad hominem attack on David Cameron’s motivation in issuing a fear-mongering “dodgy dossier.” Supposedly impartial political commentators fell straight into the trap. Instead of discussing the objective consequences of Brexit—for example that Britons would lose their automatic rights to live in Europe or that the government would need to spend years renegotiating dozens of EU trade treaties—the BBC and other media were drawn into the usual Punch and Judy knockabout about who said what and why.
By the time the “Dodgy Dossier” row was over, nobody seemed to care that the information presented in the Cabinet Office studies was undeniably correct and was what voters needed to make a reasoned judgement on the costs and benefits of Brexit. It is not “impartial” to accord the same attention to facts of law and statistics as to fantastic and self-serving forecasts about the benefits of untrammeled “sovereignty.”
If anything, the burden of proof between facts and forecasts should be reversed. The Brexit camp are the ones now advocating risky and unpredictable changes. It is therefore incumbent on them to explain exactly how Britain would benefit from Brexit and why their predictions about sovereignty should be believed. Supporters of the status quo, by contrast, have no need to predict the future because they rely on established facts.
If Brexit happens, the UK will no longer be part of the European single market or customs union. All of Britain’s trade and economic relations with Europe will therefore have to be renegotiated with outcomes that are impossible to predict. This is not a matter of opinion, but a fact of law. Brexit will change all economic relations with Europe. It doesn’t matter how many Eurosceptic business leaders claim their companies will be unaffected: they are simply wrong.
The next issue is where the biggest changes will happen. In the absence of Single Market membership, banks, law firms, accountants and online businesses based in Britain will be subject to the same restrictions when operating in Europe that are imposed on their competitors from countries such as India, China and Russia, all of which are members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) but currently have no privileged trading agreements with the EU. British citizens will also lose their present rights to live, work or retire in the EU or receive healthcare benefits in EU countries. That all this will happen if Britain votes for Brexit is not an opinion or prediction but a simple statement of fact.
Of course, it is possible that following a Brexit vote Britain could negotiate a new agreement that would restore some of the rights that British businesses and citizens now have in Europe. But the terms of any such deal would depend entirely on what EU countries wanted to offer. There is no reason to believe, for example, that British citizens would be allowed to live and work in other EU countries if Britain did not accord the same rights to all Europeans. It is equally improbable that British businesses would be allowed to sell their goods and services freely in Europe unless the British government committed itself to implementing all the relevant EU regulations, permitted free immigration and contributed to the EU budget, as the governments of Norway and Switzerland are legally required to do.
Moreover, the bargaining power in any future Free Trade Agreement, would strongly favour the EU, rather than Britain, because Britain’s trade with the EU accounts for 12.6 per cent of GDP and a comparable proportion of jobs, while only 3.1 per cent of EU GDP is linked to trade with Britain.
Even worse from Britain’s standpoint, WTO agreements would guarantee European manufacturing industries “most-favoured nation” access to British markets even after Brexit; but Britain’s service industries (which account for 43 per cent of Britain’s total exports, by far the largest proportion of any major economy) enjoy very little protection against EU discrimination in the present structure of global trading deals.
Again, these are not predictions of matters of opinion, but statistical and legislative facts.
So how does the Brexit camp respond to such purely factual information as presented, for example, in the Cabinet Office studies? The first reaction is denial and self-serving delusion. Second, they change the subject—talking airily of sovereignty, democracy and freedom or predicting new economic opportunities in America, India and China (despite the fact that EU members all enjoy privileged access to these markets that would have to be renegotiated from scratch if Britain left the EU). Like an intoxicated teenager for whom the anticipated bliss after driving his girlfriend home far outweighs any risk of crashing the car, people such as Boris Johnson do not even consider the recklessness of what they are doing—which brings us back to “Project Fear.”
If we want to deter a drunken teenager from driving, we invoke fear—if not of dying, then at least of losing his driving licence. Fear is a natural and indispensable emotion, evolved over millions of years for the self-preservation of humanity and all other intelligent species. To invoke legitimate fear, to acknowledge inconvenient facts and to warn against the risks of indulging in romantic fantasies is not to deny democracy. It is to respect the intelligence of the voters.