Why leaving the EU really does mean Brexit

Opinion piece (The Telegraph)
08 June 2016

I keep on meeting people who believe that a vote to leave the EU on June 23 won’t really mean that we leave. Britain’s partners will be so desperate to keep us, I hear, that they will come back and give us “a really good deal”. Then in a second referendum we will vote to accept a special status, which could be either half-in, half-out, or In, but with so many qualifications that most Outters could live with it. Brexiters like Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have toyed with this idea, because it may win extra votes for Leave.

A superficial reading of the last 25 years of EU history would seem to suggest that if electorates vote the "wrong" way they are given a chance to think again. The Danes voted down the Maastricht treaty in 1992, but approved it in a second vote; the Irish did the same with the treaties of Nice in 2001 and Lisbon n 2008. In all three cases, the EU agreed on declarations or protocols that helped to persuade voters to change their minds.

But what was at stake in the Irish and Danish referendums was whether the EU could adopt a new treaty, for which the consent of every member-state was required. If the Danes or the Irish had spurned the new treaties, the EU would have gone on as before, with the same member-states and the same old treaties. David Cameron’s referendum is very different and unprecedented. If the UK votes to Leave, article 50 of the Treaty on European Union sets down a procedure for it to follow. There are at least three reasons why British voters would not be given a chance to change their mind in a second referendum.

First, the British political context. It is implausible to imagine that if the Brexiters win, Cameron (or his successor) could say, “Well actually, rather than leave completely, we will seek a special status”. He would face an onslaught from eurosceptics who think that Out means Out. That is why senior figures in the government, including Cameron, George Osborne and Philip Hammond, have said that if Leave wins the government will set in motion the article 50 withdrawal process.

Second, the EU’s current rules and treaties do not allow a half-way house. The other member-states would insist that the UK apply the article 50 procedure, and negotiate on the institutional and financial provisions of the separation. Article 50 allows two years for these talks, extendable if everyone agrees (and they may not). When an agreement emerges it must be passed in the Council of Ministers, by qualified majority vote; in the European Parliament; and in the British Parliament. The UK would then need to negotiate a separate deal to cover its trading arrangements with the EU, which would require national ratification in every member-state. But none of these negotiations would alter the EU’s main treaties.

Suppose that the UK demanded a special status. For example, Boris once proposed that Britain should be a full member of the single market, with votes in the Commission, Council and Parliament, but not of the other EU policies. That would certainly be optimal for the UK economy, if the British voted to leave. It would probably be the best option for the other EU economies, too.

But since the treaties don’t allow this kind of relationship with the EU, they would need to be rewritten. The procedure for changing the treaties, set out in article 48, is extremely complicated, involving first a "Convention on the future of Europe" (the last one ran for years and involved MEPs, MPs and national governments); then an inter-governmental conference to revise the treaties; and finally ratification in each member-state, in some cases by referendum. Given the reluctance of voters to back new EU treaties, many governments – including those in Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark and France – would veto any attempt to change the treaties in the foreseeable future.

Third, even if a treaty revision did somehow become feasible, most governments and the EU institutions would strongly resist giving the UK a privileged status. They would worry about the precedent. If you give the Brits a half-in, half-out position, then other sceptical member-states – say Denmark or Hungary – might ask for the same; and so might those outside the EU, like Switzerland, Ukraine or Turkey.

Such ideas would grate against the entrenched thinking of the EU’s governments and institutions, which is that membership is a package of commitments, rights and responsibilities, and that cherry-picking must therefore be discouraged. Of course, that principle has already been compromised for the euro and the Schengen area, but Britain’s partners would strongly resist any further dilution.

Eurosceptics may say that all this shows the EU is an alarmingly inflexible organisation, and they would have a point. But the truth is that Britain’s partners would not offer the UK a better deal than that won by Cameron in February. They found his renegotiation a time-consuming, highly bothersome process, and they gave him as much as they could without undermining the EU’s fundamental principles. If the British vote to leave, they will be pushed through the article 50 door. And in the subsequent negotiations, Britain’s partners will be certain to drive a hard bargain and make the British sweat. None of them wants the UK to been seen as happy or successful when it has left the EU.

The irony is that if the British vote to Remain, their status will, in the long run, become increasingly special. One reason is the often overlooked EU Act of 2011. This says that if any new treaty transfers powers from the UK to the EU, there must be a referendum. The practical consequence is that, whatever the other EU countries wish to do, Britain will never sign up to any further integration. The other reason is that one of the reforms Cameron won in February is more significant than many people realise. Britain gained opt outs from the commitments to ‘ever closer union’ and ‘further political integration’. Already in Brussels, officials see three classes of EU member – those in the euro, those outside it, and the British. So anyone who wants Britain to have a special status need not vote to Leave. The longer we stay, the more special Britain’s status will become.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform