Everyone is sick of Brexit: Voters, Businesses, large, small and in between, MPs; British, Irish, German, Dutch, French; Leave, Remain, Don’t know – Don’t care. Everybody just wants it to go away so they can get on with their lives – or at least know where they stand.

Can you blame them?

Understandable, yes, but also wishful thinking, here’s why.

“Let’s just leave, on whatever terms, and get it over with!”

Unfortunately, leaving, with or without a deal, will not put the matter to rest. “Leaving” will be only the start of the beginning of the end, because “leaving” is only that: its how Britain actually quits its membership. It says nothing about the on-going relationship Britain is to have with its giant neighbour and most important trading partner.

How straight-forward will it be to agree that relationship? Well, consider two trade deals that the EU has already agreed with third countries. You often hear about the Swiss deal, signed with the EU in 1992, which might serve as a template. After all, Britain and Switzerland are comparable in that they send similar percentages of their respective total exports to the EU. But the comparison with Switzerland is less helpful when you consider size. Britain is a much bigger and more complex economy than Switzerland, so any on-going agreement with the EU would be commensurately more complex and take longer.

The Swiss deal took over ten years to negotiate – despite there being a free trade agreement already in place since 1972 (and from time to time the Swiss still contest parts of the current agreement!) If that’s a template, its not a very encouraging one.

The other commonly-cited recent trade deal is CETA, between Canada and the EU, which took seven years to negotiate, plus two years to be ratified by all 28 EU member states. But this comparison is less than helpful too: the EU represents about 6% of Canada’s total exports, 40% of which are extractive: energy, metals and mineral products. For Britain, the comparable percentage to the EU is nearly 50%, and involves all sectors of its economy. And Canada and the EU started the process as the greatest of friends (and still are). By contrast, post-EU Britain, particularly in the event of No Deal, would start under a cloud of acrimony.

And you would have to agree that negotiations with the EU so far have not gone well. It took at least eight months just to accept the EU’s order of negotiations! Do not expect EU-UK negotiations to go smoothly or in the UK’s favour. If that’s a harbinger of things to come, its not encouraging.

Taking all this into account, the proposed ten years to negotiate Britain’s future relationship with the EU looks optimistic to the point of heroism. Twenty would be more like it. No, we wouldn’t be getting on with our lives – or even know where we stand.

“We can just join again later, when there’s a new government in Westminster, can’t we?”

Not necessarily – even assuming a pro-EU government-in-waiting (which is currently nowhere in sight), its not just up to the UK. Britain first joined the pre-cursor to the EU in 1973. It would have joined earlier, but the Europeans were reluctant, because they doubted, as it happened, Britain’s commitment to the European Project. (In fact it was de Gaulle who objected, as he had lived in Britain for several years and had seen first-hand British ambivalence toward Europe.)

Europe is not a club, like a tennis club or a book club, where you pay your membership fees and you’re in. It is an on-going project that demands commitment from its participants. More like a successful football team: hard to get in to, demands loyalty, and a dim view is generally taken of team members who defect. To get a flavour of this, it is worth reading or listening to Winston Churchill’s historic speech in Zurich in 1946 – here is the link:

The EU chooses its members carefully because it needs commitment, and that is a reason why accession takes years, even decades. You can see how Europe might once again doubt Britain’s commitment, so there’s no reason to assume that re-joining will be easy or quick.

Its a fair guess that Churchill would be horrified if he saw what is now happening!

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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