8 April 2019

If you want Brexit to be over soon, don’t pin your hopes on No Deal


According to a recent YouGov survey, one in four people think a No Deal Brexit would be a good outcome, and another 13 per cent see at as at least acceptable. The option of leaving the EU without a deal enjoys the support of a significant minority, both on its own terms, and when directly pitched against other options.

Does this mean that there is a widespread appetite for the hardest of Hard Brexits?

Articles which try to second-guess what the participants of a survey “really” meant are often a bit tedious, because there is always a danger that the motives the author attributes to people are simply their own projections. But here we go – this is one of those articles. My impression is that the apparent popularity of a No Deal Brexit is, to a large extent, a reflection of Brexit fatigue. Brexit is crowding out almost everything else, it feels never-ending, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and it’s wearing people out.

Let’s face it: Brexit isn’t interesting anymore. We’ve had (or at least heard) all the arguments one can possibly have about the subject. We’ve been arguing, or listening to others argue, about the Single Market, the Customs Union, the free movement of people, the Irish border, the UK’s payments into the EU budget, the backstop, the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and the European Court of Justice. And we’re now just repeating the same old arguments over and over again. And that is the sad truth: Brexit is boring.

Hence the allure of No Deal, which comes with the promise of putting an end to the whole thing, at last. Better a painful break than to draw out the agony. It may not be pretty, but at least it will finally be over.

Let’s ignore the elephant in the room, that is, the question whether leaving without a deal really will be as catastrophic as some forecasts suggest, or whether it will be no worse than a garden-variety recession. This article is not about that. It’s about the “clean break” illusion. A No Deal Brexit will not be the end of anything. Even if it turns out that the warnings about its short-term impact were wildly over the top, a No Deal Brexit will not make the issue go away.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody is suggesting that we should trade with the EU on WTO terms forever. No Deal does not mean No Deal Ever. It means “no deal for now”, it means “leave first, negotiate later”. So there would still be negotiations at a later stage. At some point, the UK and the EU would want to formalise their trading relationship, and reduce administrative barriers to trade. And that means a deal, because, for better or worse, international trade is usually mediated through trade deals of varying depth and scope. There is a good chance that those negotiations would soon start to look suspiciously like the current Brexit negotiations again, and that the public debate around them would also look start to suspiciously like our current Brexit debates again.

What would those negotiations be about? Presumably, somebody on either the UK or the EU side would suggest that there should be some degree of regulatory alignment in some sectors, in order to remove non-tariff barriers to trade. This would require some joint decision-making and oversight, which means that the UK would participate in some EU institutions, or in newly created joint UK-EU institutions. Presumably, somebody on either the UK or the EU side would suggest to make it easier to obtain work visas, in order to improve labour mobility. Presumably, somebody on either the UK or the EU side would suggest a greater degree of coordination of external trade policies. Again, this would need some joint decision-making and oversight, which means that the UK would participate in some EU institutions or in newly created joint UK-EU institutions. And so on.

What would happen next? Why, in no time, the usual suspects would be back on the telly, screaming betrayal. They would say that those measures are taking us half-way back into the EU, that this is not what 17.4 million people voted for, that this is the work of sneering metropolitan elitist liberal Remoaners (or now: Rejoiners) trying to overturn the will of The People, and so on.

Those who believe that leaving without a deal represents some sort of shortcut misunderstand why Brexit is so polarising. It is not that we agree on an end state, and just disagree on how best to get there. We disagree on the end state itself. We disagree, fundamentally, over what sort of relationship with the EU we ultimately want, with the dividing lines running not just between Leavers and Remainers, but also within each camp. These disagreements will not go away. Whether we negotiate as a member who is on their way out, or as a non-member who is looking to formalise the relationship from the outside, is ultimately not that important.

The fundamental trade-offs are the same either way. If we insist on tightly controlled immigration, we cannot have unimpeded access to the Single Market. If we do not want any regulatory alignment, we will have to accept some duplication of regulatory compliance costs. If we want to diverge from the EU in terms of external trade, arrangements at the Irish border will have to reflect the fact that this is now a border between two different customs territories. And so on. There are trade-offs in a lot of areas, and they are here to stay.

And thus, so are our Brexit arguments. Sure, if we left without a deal, the word “Brexit” itself might become obsolete. But a lot of what is currently going on around that word would not.

So if you want Brexit to be over soon, don’t pin your hopes on No Deal. Don’t pin your hopes on anything, in fact. We are in it for the long haul. You can No Deal any time you like, but you can never leave.

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Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.