David Cameron proclaims that he can state definitively and with certainty what remaining in the EU will mean, but that what leaving means is ill-defined. He demands that those advocating Leave owe it to the British people to spell out in detail what alternative to being in the EU they have in mind.
Well, he’s clearly quite wrong to claim he can be certain what remaining means. He couldn’t possibly claim the meaning of being in the European project since the 1975 referendum could have been stated definitively and certainly in 1975. Does he claim it was certainthat MEPs would start to be elected, that the Warsaw Pact would collapse, that Germany and Italy would agree to share a currency, that China would grow faster than France for decades or that home-grown Islamist terrorists would now be seen as a greater security threat than nuclear war? It’s nonsense.
But let’s set that aside, for as it happens I can state what a Leave vote means with perfect clarity. The alternative to being in the EU is notbeing in the EU.
I suspect that advocates of Remain will consider this an unsatisfactory answer. They will demand that I spell out what trading arrangements Britain would have – will it be a Norway option, a Swiss option, a Turkey option, a Canada option, a WTO option, or something else (as explored in a government white paper out today)? To which I reply: Balderdash! This referendum is not about a choice of trade deal. The ballot paper will contain no mention of the CETA or the DCFTA or the CER or the CSSTA. The choice will be to remain in the EU or to leave the EU. The alternative to being in the EU is to not be in the EU.
Advocates of a Leave vote, the press and the British public more generally should not be seduced by the proposition that the EU is some kind of trade deal and the alternative is some other kind of trade deal. The EU is not a trade deal at all.
For one thing, the EU is not mainly about trade – but let’s ignore that for the purposes of this discussion. For another, the EU is a decision-making executive body, not an intergovernmental decision forum. But let’s ignore that as well, and choose to magick ourselves back to the circa 1991 world so much EU discussion anachronistically resides in. In that halcyon time, the EU (it was actually the EC, but let’s stick to EU) – the EU could, let us pretend, be regarded as an intergovernmental decision-making forum. But the EU is, in that sense, not a static deal over trade and commerce and regulation. Rather, it is a process by which the UK and other countries decide how trade and commerce are to be regulated.
Thus to compare the EU to some trade deal is to compare apples and pears. The EU is not a deal. It is (insofar as it is about trade at all) a means by which deals are made and policed. If we leave the EU we will be choosing no longer to make and police our trade deals in that particular way. The alternative to making our deals through the EU is for the UK to make its deals without doing so via the EU (e.g. for itself).
All of this is something of a mercy, for trade deals are terribly dull technocratic affairs that only nerds such as myself find interesting, and which, when they are cut barely make page 5 of the financial pages. Did you even know the EU had a trade deal with Korea or was about to ratify one with Canada or didn’t have one with Japan? Would you have cared before this referendum came up? Trade deals involve lots of detailed give and take on small tedious points, and it’s absolutely ridiculous to pretend advocates of Leaving the EU should have pre-negotiated all such deals in advance.
Perhaps at some point in the future we might switch from doing our trade deals ourselves to doing them via some other decision-making forum (or, in fact, executive body) akin to the EU. But we can’t even start to ponder whether we might want to do that or what other countries might want to be in it with us until we stop being in the EU.
So, dear advocate of Leave, next time you are challenged about what alternative to EU membership you have in mind, you answer should be clear. The alternative to being in the EU is not being in the EU. It really is as straightforward as that.