Since Brexit many members of Britain’s political and media classes have developed a new obsession. They are obsessed with what post-Brexit deal Britain can or cannot negotiate with the EU. That obsession is not only foolish, but puts things the wrong way round because it fails to recognise that Brexit offers great freedoms and opportunities which are not dependent upon what the EU will or will not agree to.
Brexit gives us freedom to forge our own international trade policy with the rest of the world. It restores to us power to revise our laws so that they can once again reflect the wishes of the British people and improve the efficiency of our economy. And it gives us the right to control our borders and control immigration in the same way as we control that from the rest of the world. Once out, we will not need EU permission to reap the rewards of these freedoms and opportunities. They cannot be taken away from us, unless we are stupid enough to give them away by entering into a new ‘deal’ with the EU which restricts these powers.
Yet this is what some powerful political and business interests are advocating, in order to stay in the EU’s so-called ‘single market’: some even want us to be in the European Economic Area (‘EEA’) arrangement which would have all the negative features of EU membership but even less power than now to control our own affairs.
Politicians and media should recognise that this mindset must end and recognise the reality of Britain’s opportunities. The majority of the UK’s trade is with the rest of the world, and its share of exports to the EU is well below 50 per cent and in long term decline. And we don’t need any special trade deal with the EU, since after exit we can continue to trade with them on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, like we already do in most of our export markets including the USA. True, our exports of goods into the EU would then be subject to the EU’s standard external tariffs. But the cost of these tariffs to our exporters would be much less than our current net EU budget contribution.
What does this mean for Mrs May and her team who are pledged to make Brexit mean Brexit?
First, Britain should actively prepare a plan for leaving without an agreement with the EU, and at the same time put in place trade agreements with other countries to come into force the day after we exit the EU. Britain’s legal and administrative systems should be ready for international trade with the EU and others, including customs and conformity certification procedures. Our reformed and revised post-EU laws should also be passed and on the statute book, ready to come into force on the same day.
Secondly, with these preparations in well hand, we will be able to negotiate with the EU with confidence and strength, because we will be able to say ‘no’ to a bad deal. The aim should be to continue the two-way free flow of trade in goods and services, which benefits us but the EU even more. And there should be no question of ‘paying’ for the privilege of ‘access’ to the EU market, and no question of giving way on the ultimate sovereignty of any country, the right to control its borders.
*Martin Howe QC is a barrister at 8 New Square specialising in IP and EU law. His publications for Politeia include How to Leave the EU: Legal and Trade Priorities for the New Britain and Zero Plus: Principles for EU Renegotiation.