Britain will not enjoy special privileges just because it was once a memberby Christopher Grey / July 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
It has become a truism that Brexit is characterised by attempts to cherry pick aspects of European Union membership, to the extent that “cakeism” has been elevated from feeble joke to national strategy. What underlies this strategy is not merely opportunism, though, but a fundamental misunderstanding to the effect that having been a member of the EU means that some special status is available to Britain.
Thus rather than face the reality that leaving the EU means being third country, Britain expects to retain a kind of “alumnus” status. No longer a member, but still entitled to wear the tie and have preferential access to the school sports facilities.
Such an expectation has long been evident in the Brexit negotiations, with calls for the EU to be “more flexible” and “more imaginative” so as to create a “bespoke arrangement.” The fundamental flaw in this is that the EU is a multi-lateral, rules-based organisation governed by treaties. It’s true that there are various forms that being a third country takes—hence the fevered search for this or that “model,” from Ukraine to Canada. But none allows, or could allow, Britain to both be and yet not be a third country.
Almost every metaphor for Brexit is flawed and tired. But it’s as if someone sells their house and then expects to go on sleeping there, and to use the garden at weekends. “But I lived here for 40 years, doesn’t that mean anything?” The answer, of course, is “no”; and refusal to accept it will ultimately lead to the police being called in. That’s the way the rules work.
This expectation of alumnus status is evident in many of the contortions around participating in aspects of the single market and customs systems. For example, the current (very unclear) proposal that the UK would collect tariffs on behalf of the EU as part of a “Facilitated Customs Arrangement” has at its heart the proposition that as an ex-member the UK can be trusted to do so. But it’s not a matter of trust: it’s a matter of a system of rules which the UK is choosing to leave.
A similar misapprehension can be seen in relation to EU agencies. As recently as April 2017, David Davis was claiming there was no reason why the European Medicines Agency (EMA) had to leave London just because of Brexit, and that it was a matter of negotiation. But it was always inevitable that it would, and last November it was announced it is going to Amsterdam. Perhaps Davis thought that the old Brexiter standard “we’re leaving the EU but not Europe” is something other than a geographical truism. It isn’t. The EMA is an EU agency, it’s not a “European” agency.
Or, again, with Galileo, the EU’s global navigation satellite system, Brexiters appear genuinely amazed that leaving the EU puts British membership under threat. But we’ve been a leading part of it for years, and made a huge contribution to its success, they complain. The (il)logic is the same: Britain should not be treated as a third country because it used to be a member state.
Beneath this lies something at best naïve and at worst dishonest. The naïve part is to imagine that although Britain is leaving the EU there’s no reason why anything that much should really change. This takes for granted the familiar accoutrements of modern life without realising that they are the product of extensive, albeit largely invisible, organisational arrangements.
So, for example, “of course nowadays” planes fly us to wherever we want without restrictions, as if this were not the outcome of regulatory systems such as the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA). But it is, and if Britain excludes itself from such systems then it will be excluded from their benefits.
The more dishonest aspect of this is the way that Brexiters constantly promised that it would be possible to leave the EU but keep most things pretty much the same. In particular, the endless fudging of what single market “access” meant—in itself, in fact, nothing—implied and sometimes explicitly claimed that Britain could leave the EU and the single market but, as Michael Gove put it, be in “a free trade zone that extends from Iceland to the Russian border.”
The biggest danger of the idea that Britain can be a special kind of non-member of the EU, retaining certain privileges by virtue of having once belonged, is not that it is wholly unrealistic and hence doomed to failure. It is that, whenever shown to fail, it is re-configured as “punishment.” So Brexiters treat the outcome as the fault of the EU, rather than as a consequence of the choice they urged our country to make. There is no EU alumni club. Brexit, to coin a phrase, means Brexit.