As Britain’s exit from the EU, scheduled for March 2019, draws ever closer, the time for rhetoric is behind us and the need for level-headed and comprehensive analysis intensifies. With that in mind, the arrival of the fully updated paperback edition of Clean Brexit: Why Leaving the EU Still Makes Sense could not come at a more apt time.
Despite being written by two economists, Liam Halligan and Gerard Lyons, the book reads surprisingly well. This warrants considerable praise, given the comprehensive nature of the discussion, in which no detail, acronym or intricacy is spared. The reader is rightly taken seriously. This new edition also comes complete with an updated foreword by Gisela Stuart, doyen of Labour’s common-sense wing, and a revised afterword by the high priest of Brexit himself, Jacob Rees-Mogg – giving this Brexit bible papal approval.
The authors’ conclusions have changed little since their original elaboration in the first edition last year. This is because, as the authors state, the essential realities and logic of Brexit remain the same now as they did a year ago, hence why leaving still makes sense. Specifically, that in order to be faithful to the referendum result and beneficial for the future, they argue that the UK must – MUST – uncouple from the main entities of the EU – namely, the single market and customs union. To avoid a messy future we need (as they put it) a ‘Clean Brexit’.
Halligan and Lyons maintain that there is no such thing as ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit, only Brexit or no Brexit. The soft/hard dichotomy is nonsense, conceived and propagated only by those who seek to dishonour the referendum result and bring about Brexit in name only.
‘Soft Brexit’ – the continued membership of the two main constructs of the EU, the single market and customs union – is not Brexit, they make clear. It would mean UK law remains under the jurisdiction of the ECJ, the continuation of multi-billion-pound contributions to the EU budget, the inability to maintain an independent trade policy and continued freedom of movement. ‘In sum, a betrayal of the referendum result.’ It would bind the UK to EU rules and regulations without allowing us a say. It would amount to vassalage.
Being outside the single market and customs union, meanwhile, isn’t ‘Hard Brexit’, it is Brexit. Indeed, ‘the repeated use of ‘Hard Brexit’ – which has become ubiquitous, used freely by the broadcast news media – makes leaving the EU seem like an extreme, ideological and damaging position.’ In truth, it is the only way to honour the main reasons why people voted to leave: to end freedom of movement, to cease large budget contributions to the EU and to strike trade agreements further afield – and the only way to ensure the UK can thrive post-Brexit.
The authors predicate their discussions on Brexit and beyond with a historical overview of the European project and Britain’s tetchy relation with it. This is well-trodden ground, and the authors do no more than succinctly reprise what we already know. Where they do break new ground, though, is their discussion of how the world has changed, and what this means for Britain post-Brexit. The EU, Halligan and Lyons argue, ‘was founded in a different era to the one we live in now’. Unprecedented geopolitical, economic, technological and logistical change over the past half century or so means that Europe, ‘once the world’s economic powerhouse … now accounts for a diminishing slice of the world economy’.
So much so that – whilst the UK will remain closely tied to Europe given our close proximity – ‘as the weight of global population, growth and raw economic power continues to shift eastwards, it is vital that the UK raises its sights from Europe, putting far more emphasis on commercial, economic, political relations with the rest of the world’. Echoing Churchill’s promise that, ‘if Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea’, for the authors, the essential logic of Brexit still holds true.
Halligan and Lyons bring greatly appreciated analysis and certitude to two issues that increasingly dominate the squabblings of the media commentariat: the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, and the Irish border.
They make clear that no-deal Brexit ‘simply means that we don’t strike a UK–EU FTA before March 2019’. This is far from a disaster, they reassure us. All it would mean is that we trade with the EU on WTO rules; rules which already facilitate the vast majority of all worldwide trade. (They are quick to remind us that most of the world’s biggest economies trade in enormous quantities without a FTA, and on WTO rules.) Although their vanity would have us think otherwise, trade doesn’t happen because politicians sign trade deals, and it certainly doesn’t cease when those deals aren’t signed.
Indeed, far from viewing it as a fatal cliff-edge, Halligan and Lyons argue that Britain should emphasise to the EU its willingness and preparedness to trade without a FTA, on WTO terms: ‘unless the EU sees that we are prepared not to sign a FTA, we will only be offered a bad one’. Here they are 100% right. If we look like a beggar, the EU will treat us like one. Even if Theresa May has changed her tune, no deal remains better than a bad deal.
This is also why the whole idea of a ‘people’s vote’ on the final deal is completely counterproductive. Those moved to call for a vote do so, honourably, as they don’t want the UK to be disadvantaged by the final deal. But by doing so they play right into the hands of the EU.
For, if there is a vote on the deal, the EU would have every incentive to make sure it is a bad one. And if we voted for said deal, the UK would no doubt end up in a more disadvantaged position than we are in currently; and if we voted it down, we would – well, god only knows what would happen next! Either way, the UK would find itself in a political and procedural nightmare. And the EU would have succeeded in making Brexit a disaster, discouraging the other dissatisfied member nations (of which there are many) from questioning their own membership.
Even though the UK would have no problem trading without a deal, a good FTA, however – one that caters to the UK’s service-dominated economy, that doesn’t impede our ability to sign other FTAs, or require payments for access to the single market – is still the most desired outcome.
And there is good reason to believe that the UK will get one, for most trade agreements involve haggling down tariffs and harmonising complex regulations. ‘The UK and EU, though, start with zero tariffs and identical rules.’ Meaning that much of the heavy lifting is already complete. Additionally, given the immense volume of trade that flows from Europe to the UK, and vice versa, there is enormous commercial pressure to secure as free a trading relationship as possible.
That said, the authors admit that ‘securing a deal becomes more complex once Britain begins to size up FTAs elsewhere’. Given our enthusiasm to seek free trade further afield, this does jeopardise the chances of securing a comprehensive trade deal with the EU by March 2019; and is why the UK should be prepared for a no-deal scenario.
But the biggest thing standing in the way of securing an UK–EU FTA, as we know, is not economics, but politics. ‘There is a strong political imperative for the UK to be seen not to benefit from Brexit, so as to avoid encouraging populist parties in nations such as France, Italy and Greece to push harder for their own EU membership referenda.’ If Brexit is a success then it could spell the end of the EU project, a possibility the EU is all too aware of – and hence their incentive to ensure that Britain does not succeed. This, again, is why the UK should prepared and willing to trade under WTO rules.
As for the Irish border, since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement the 310-mile border separating the Republic from Northern Ireland has been a border in name only. British and Irish membership of the EU undoubtedly played a big role in facilitating the signing of the agreement. Many have warned, however, that Brexit necessitates a hard border between North and South – something no one wants to see. For, if we leave the single market, a hard border would need to be in place to put in place to stop the Irish border becoming a back door for immigration into the UK. Likewise, if we leave the customs union we must have a hard border to enforce customs checks on goods. This has emboldened many leading figures (all of whom conveniently voted to remain) to propose that the UK must remain inside the/a single market and/or customs union, in order to preserve the hard-won peace settlement.
As we have seen, the authors emphatically reject continued UK membership of the single market and customs union, both in principle and practice. But, they also don’t want to see the hard border put in place – so how do they reconcile the two?
Concerning freedom of movement, the authors argue that ‘all travel from the Republic to the UK mainland and EU is, for obvious reasons, by boat or plane’. ‘As such, border checks can be carried out electronically, with staff intervention where required, before boats sail and planes take off.’ Therefore, so long as proper information sharing is conducted there needn’t be a hard border. Likewise, so long as there is significant investment in the relevant technology, Lyons and Halligan state that there is no reason why trade between Ireland and the UK cannot be frictionless, even outside of the customs union. ‘As long as the UK invests heavily in new technology and border staff, there is no reason why goods and people should not continue to move freely.’
Halligan and Lyons also outline the policies that a post-Brexit Britain should prioritise. These include a large-scale house building program; a reduction and simplification of the UK tax regime; increased focus on digital and technical skills; large scale infrastructure spending, particularly in the North; accelerated fiscal devolution; and sizeable welfare reform, to name but a few. These suggestions are radical, and would do a lot to address the systemic problems the UK faces. Given the current inertia party politics, however, these policies are unlikely to find implementation.
But these policies are more than just wishful thinking; indeed, they strike at the heart of why people voted to leave the EU. People voted to ‘Take Back Control’: to bring political authority and accountability closer to home, so that, as a country, each and every British man and woman is empowered with more say at the ballot box. And so that we don’t have to pay homage to our EU masters every time we want to spend our own money, pass our own laws or trade our goods.
People did not vote for Brexit believing that all their woes would disappear overnight. Brexit is not – and never has been – a panacea. It has always been a means to an end. A means of creating a fairer, safer, less bureaucratic, less centralised, more dynamic and prosperous Britain.
So it may be easy to scoff at Halligan and Lyons’ ideas and recommendations for post-Brexit Britain. But very soon, Britain will have left the EU (that much is certain). And when have, we, the British people, will be the only pilots at the helm – once more the masters of our own destiny, beholden to no one but ourselves – so we better have a destination in mind. We need to think hard and fast about what kind of country we want after Brexit, and this book is as good a place as any to start.
A comprehensive and scholarly appraisal of the decision taken by the British people to leave the EU, now over two years ago is unfortunately, seemingly, anathema to those tasked with its implementation. This book is nothing less than a manifesto for optimism and reason in a political climate fraught with whinging and dogmatism, and one that should be read widely if we are to spare ourselves from the fatal quagmire that would ensue if the UK was to decide upon anything other than a ‘Clean Brexit’.
Published: 16 AUGUST 2018