How to leave the EU without making a mess of it (and why it’s still not worth it)

, by Juuso Järviniemi

How to leave the EU without making a mess of it (and why it's still not worth it)
March for Europe in Edinburgh, March 2018. Photo: Alexandra Person.

As Brexit is destroying the UK’s economy, national unity and international reputation, many have correctly pointed out that observing today’s British politics deters other countries from packing their bags and leaving the EU. If a former great power like the UK is imploding like this before it has even left, a smaller country should not even think about it, the reasoning goes.

That reasoning is correct: if national welfare is high on your list of priorities, and if you’re more interested in making a difference in the world than you are in an illusion of control, leaving the EU isn’t worth it. However, for the sake of fairness, we must say that many of the UK’s Brexit problems are caused by its imperial history, unusual constitutional model and incompetent politicians. As such, other countries insane enough to follow the UK could avoid many of the pitfalls of Brexit. Even then, though, it’s impossible to imagine any country ending up in a better place once it’s left the EU.

When a border means violence

“Borders are violence” would make for a brilliant slogan to write on a placard at a demonstration. In Northern Ireland, the phrase takes on a more literal meaning. The reason why the question of the Customs Union causes the UK so much trouble (sic) is that customs checkpoints on the Irish border would be unacceptable to Irish republicans; checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would be unacceptable to Northern Irish unionists; and keeping all of the UK in the Customs Union is unacceptable to the Brexiteers who hold Theresa May hostage. Given the history of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, the stakes are higher than perhaps anywhere else in Western Europe.

If, say, Denmark left the EU and there were border checks, it would be annoying for all parties involved, but there would be no fear of killing. The chief argument for leaving the Customs Union is the ability to negotiate one’s own trade deals, but one must realise that not even the UK (population: 66 million) can strike as good deals as the EU (population: 513 million). Denmark (population: 6 million) would simply get devoured in any trade negotiation.

Besides, various arrangements exist for avoiding a hard border – for example, Norway is outside the Customs Union, but it can access the Single Market. This is at the cost of applying vast bodies of EU legislation without having a vote on it, and of accepting the dreaded free movement of people. It depends on what justifications for leaving the EU are deployed in the hypothetical Insert-country-name-her-exit, but if it’s about “making your own laws”, “reining in immigration” and “negotiating your own trade deals”, one should prepare for disappointment. As is often repeated, the best deal with the EU is EU membership – even when leaving doesn’t entail a risk of violent conflict.

Plurinational predicament

Northern Ireland’s complicated situation of course stems from the history of the British rule in Ireland. The long history of the British Isles, where unequal power relations between England and the other nations in the islands play a central role, also creates headaches in Scotland. One need not be an expert to realise it’s probably a daft idea to have an EU referendum less than two years after a nail-biting Scottish independence referendum, in the knowledge that if the UK is to leave the EU, it will do so against the will of Scotland whose governing nationalist party is pro-EU. [1] However, the mental distance from London to Edinburgh (much like Belfast) is such that the question crossed few Westminster politicians’ minds. Because of Brexit, the story is not over in Scotland.

The fact that Scottish independence was long gone from the political agenda until, within a relatively short period of time, all of Scottish politics came to be about independence, is a good illustration of how nations and national sentiment are constantly evolving, man-made constructs rather than an eternal, God-given fact of life. However, it still seems safe to say that unlike the United Kingdom, many European countries have successfully settled the question of nations and state boundaries for the foreseeable future. Even if the UK disintegrates because of Brexit, most other countries would gleefully #suffertogether if they were to leave the EU.

907 days, no plan

Given the fact that the Northern Ireland puzzle is frankly impossible to solve, perhaps it is not all that surprising that 907 days after the June 2016 referendum, Brexit supporters have not come up with a viable plan. Theresa May’s Brexit deal is the best possible, but that, too, sank the moment it was presented to the UK Parliament. The fact that nobody in the UK deigned to present a detailed manifesto on how to leave the EU doesn’t mean that other countries would need to repeat the UK’s mistakes.

Now that we all have witnessed how negotiations for leaving the EU work in practice, anti-EU forces in other countries have all the information they need to prepare their plan and negotiating strategy well before an EU referendum in their countries. [2] The Scottish National Party often reminds people that when it launched its bid to part from the UK, it unveiled a 900-page manifesto to detail what kind of a relationship Scotland would seek with the rest of the UK. Especially after the British experience, an anti-EU movement’s refusal to do the same would constitute a tacit admission that the only way they can hope to win an EU referendum is through vagueness, mutually contradictory statements and lies on the side of a bus.

Strong and stable

The UK’s governing Conservative Party has been bitterly divided on the EU for at least three decades, which inevitably means that some MPs will sooner or later vote against their government on Brexit matters. Given this, a minority government backed up by the Northern Irish unionists isn’t exactly the “strong and stable leadership” that is needed in negotiations that would otherwise be difficult enough already. Article 50 was originally designed as a tool for “dictatorial regimes”, in which the Parliament will presumably do whatever the leader says. Even in ordinary conditions, however, an ability of the government to pass key legislation through its Parliament would seem like a reasonable minimum requirement before embarking on the biggest international negotiation in the country’s recent history.

In 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron did not want the UK to leave, but called the referendum regardless. That, in turn, was the reason why the government did not produce a Brexit plan. At no point, including today, has the British Parliament had a majority of MPs who in their hearts believe the country is better off outside the EU – which, fortunately for the ordinary Brit, means that the government can expect parliamentary resistance if it tries to force through a no-deal departure. The British experience makes one ask if it would be wiser to only run the EU referendum once there is a solid parliamentary majority for leaving. To paraphrase Barack Obama, “You don’t like the EU? Go out and win an election.”

Whose job is it anyway?

The most high-profile Brexit votes in the UK Parliament so far have been about the extent to which the Parliament has control over the divorce process. If the UK had a written constitution to follow, it would have been spared from the trouble. If there still remained unclarity and conflict, the bulk of it would have been settled in courts where decision-makers’ thinking isn’t distorted by concerns about career advancement within the political party and other ulterior motives.

The fact that the government is constantly on the brink of suffering a humiliating defeat in the Parliament is partly because of its lack of majority, but also because of the British constitutional tradition – another problem that other countries can avoid. If you want to go overboard with competence, perhaps even clarifying the respective competences of the government and the Parliament beforehand would be a good idea. The current bane of the government – the increasingly loud calls for a referendum on the final deal – could equally have been avoided by an advance agreement that the final deal would be subject to a referendum. [3]

It won’t get any easier than this

Perhaps the real catch is that any government that displays this level of preparedness and understanding of European institutions will flinch at the idea of leaving the EU. That’s for good reason: being “a rule-taker, not a rule-maker” makes you powerless, and the alternative of a “clean break” makes you poorer. It was clear from the beginning that there would be no chance to “cherry-pick” the bits of EU membership you want. If even the UK, with its well-known diplomatic machinery and comparatively large size, could not cheat the system, others should not even dream of it.

If negotiations to leave the EU are like accession negotiations in reverse, there’s more bad news for those seeking to leave the EU. The countries that joined the Union earlier, like the UK, had a better chance of getting opt-outs and concessions. As time has passed, the rules have become more solid. For Iceland and Norway, the Common Fisheries Policy is the main obstacle to joining the EU. Had the countries filed their application to join five decades ago, it’s not hard to imagine that the dispute would have been solved with a simple opt-out. Today, these two small, wealthy countries remain outside.

By the same token, if another country triggers Article 50, it may well meet with less patience than the UK. The smaller a proportion of the European economy is represented by the country that is planning to leave, the more plausible it is that the Commission would simply prepare one or two “take it or leave it” formulas for the country.

Even without Brexit, the future of the UK as a state was uncertain, as the islands still struggle to come to terms with their history. At the same time, the lack of a constitution and a majority government doesn’t make it any easier for the Prime Minister. Add to that the complete lack of advance planning, and you get the monstrosity that is Brexit. Other countries can learn from these mistakes, but – as the British experience has shown – the fact remains that the best deal with the EU is called EU membership.


[1Already before the referendum, Scotland was known to be a heartland of Remain. At the referendum, 62% of Scotland voted to stay in the EU, with every council area in Scotland voting to Remain.

[2Even before the Brexit negotiations started, the most attentive observers could of course have studied the EU accession negotiations to get clues as to how a negotiation might work in the other direction. In both types of negotiations, the EU’s guiding principle has been respect for its own rules.

[3In 2011, the idea of a “double referendum” was supported by some of today’s most ardent Brexiteers. The idea was to have a referendum on starting a renegotiation of the UK’s EU membership under David Cameron’s leadership, and then another referendum after the renegotiation is finished.

Your comments

  • On 24 December 2018 at 15:09, by Ian Beckett Replying to: How to leave the EU without making a mess of it (and why it’s still not worth it)

    I am limited to 3000 characters so it is possible to answer only a few points

    UK annual growth rate is 1.5%, this has been trending up for three quarters. The EZ rate is 1.6% trending down for the last five. Destruction of the UK economy seems to be over stated

    With the “yellow jackets” in France and rioting in Germany this year are not the only country with disunity, although we have limited our arguments to political debate not throwing bricks

    Our politicians are incompetent. After the referendum ‘remainers’ say the vote should never have been held and Cameron was stupid to put the question to the electorate. Continental politicians have never been so foolish as to give the electorate a voice. I agree that preparation for a ‘leave’ vote should have been put in place, the arrogance of the elites was such that they could not conceive of the vote going against them. Indeed this is why Brexit is proving so difficult, a majority of those responsible for delivering it are against it but are unable to enforce their will having ‘incompetently’ put the choice to voters.

    There is no evidence that the EU obtains better trade deals than smaller states. Switzerland has deals with Singapore, South African Customs Union, Japan, Canada, Ukraine and China, usually years before the EU Of course the EU has yet to achieve a deal with the US or China, the two biggest economies in the World. The EU (because it must take the conflicting demands of 28 states into account) is very slow at trade talks. Only 2 of the UKs biggest export markets outside the EU are actually covered by EU deals. As the fifth largest economy in the World the UK is an attractive trade partner that others will want deals with

    The Irish border is sensitive. Currently the RoI checks 4% of containers entering it from outside the EU. The vast overwhelming majority of imports into both the EU and UK are never checked by officials at borders. Electronic systems already exist and are used. As matters stand NI and RoI have very different tax regimes yet this seems to work despite the lack of any border posts. Is the EU is trying to manufacture a problem?

    The UK and RoI have had freedom of movement and work for almost a century, no one wants that to end. Visa free travel to the UK from the EU is highly likely, as matters stand all passengers on ferries / planes must produce identification already. It is only those from the rest of the EU who want to work in the UK (and NI) who will have to obtain work visas.

    Finally, you accept the idea of one part of the UK wanting independence (Scotland) but fail to see that this is how the UK sees Brexit in relation to the EU. Your site is full of calls for more integration etc, yet here is a political union in being since 1707 with a common language, currency, political institutions etc. which is obviously under strain. Do you not think the EU without a common demos is ultimately even more at risk?

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