Britain's Brexiters Offer Only False Hope

Boris and Gove
Former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove in Stratford-upon-Avon, Britain June 6, 2016. Can Brexiters deliver what they Promise? Phil Noble/Reuters

The British electorate decides on Thursday, in perhaps the most important decision facing the country since 1945, whether to leave the EU after some four decades of membership. In a campaign high on hyperbole, the "Leave" leaders have failed—remarkably—to address the single most important question it needs to answer.

That is, the alternative that it wishes Britain to adopt instead of membership of the EU. The fact that it hasn't been able to articulate this with clarity sells the electorate short in such an important moment in the nation's history.

To be sure, former London Mayor Boris Johnson had seemed to advocate in March for the United Kingdom to have the type of bilateral deal that Canada may be on the cusp of concluding with the EU after around seven years of negotiations. Yet, he has since appeared to row back from this after not appearing to know that the agreement, still to be finally concluded, has taken some seven years to negotiate, nor that it does not cover services which represents around 80 percent of the U.K. economy.

Fellow leave campaigner, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, has asserted that the United Kingdom should "be outside but have access to" the EU's Single Market which one of his Conservative political heroes, Margaret Thatcher, negotiated in the 1980s and on which a significant array of British jobs and investment depend. But beyond saying that he favours a bilateral deal with the EU, he too has failed to fully articulate what the specifics of this vision encompass.

A key reason for the leave camp's inability to tackle this question head-on is that there is no existing alternative which comes close to providing the same balance of influence and advantages that Britain gets from its status inside the 28-member union. For all the EU's flaws, and it has many that need to be better tackled, the United Kingdom now enjoys a uniquely positive position in what is the world's largest political and economic union.

For instance, Britain has all the benefits of the Single Market economic powerhouse, but is not part of the Eurozone; it has retained a budgetary rebate and ensured it cannot be outvoted by Eurozone countries against U.K. interests. And Britain is not part of the Schengen border-free area too which means it operates border controls with other EU member states.

The stark reality is that, while the nature of bilateral agreements with the EU vary, all have major disadvantages, including the fact that none of them provide full access to services. Moreover, Leave campaigners have generally shied away from the implications of what access to the single market may entail without EU membership.

Take the example of Norway which has considerable access to the single market, except in areas like agriculture and fisheries. In exchange, it is required to adhere to EU rules without having a vote on them as EU member such as Britain do now; it accepts free movement of people; makes contributions to EU programmes and budgets; and still is required to do customs checks on goods crossing into the EU.

Moreover, such free trade deals with the EU generally take years to negotiate, with no guarantees that the United Kingdom would obtain terms as good as those today. Further, preferential access to 53 markets outside Europe with which the EU has Free Trade Agreements would come to an end, or need to be eventually renegotiated bilaterally in coming years.

Outside of the economic realm, such free trade deals also offer no guarantees that the United Kingdom could fully replicate existing cooperation in areas like policing and security. Moreover, with Britain now accounting for less than 1 percent of global population, and around 3 percent of world GDP, leaving the EU will also undermine the way in which membership helps to enhance wider UK influence in the world, both politically and economically.

Remarkably, even the commonly acknowledged worst-case scenario—that the United Kingdom may not reach any new agreement with the EU—has been welcomed by prominent Leave campaigner Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Farage has cavalierly noted that this "worst-case scenario is better than where we are today", despite the fact it would mean Britain's trading arrangements reverting to so-called WTO rules, the most complete break with the EU of any post-Brexit arrangement, which former WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy has condemned as a "terrible replacement" for Single Market access.

Despite the flaws of the EU it is clear that continued membership is the best available choice for Britain so that it can help lead the charge to reform the union from within. Given the Leave camp's failure to answer the most fundamental questions about the U.K.'s post-Brexit future, the sensible answer is to remain.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics