Monday 11 December 2017

Forget Brexit u-turn, the real threat is EU break-up

Cameron's massive gamble has only delivered political and economic uncertainty for the foreseeable future, writes Colm McCarthy

RESULT: Former London Mayor Boris Johnson is questioned by journalists near his home last week. GETTY
RESULT: Former London Mayor Boris Johnson is questioned by journalists near his home last week. GETTY
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

It is no longer imaginable that Britain's Conservative party will risk further political dislocation by ignoring the popular vote and seeking an escape from the unexpected Brexit decision. This prospect disappeared with the demise of Boris Johnson's leadership campaign last Thursday.

Johnson, an opportunistic rather than a committed Brexiter, might have sought some route back from a hard exit but none of the remaining candidates seems likely to do so. The front-runner, Theresa May, has stated that 'Brexit is Brexit' and will be taken at her word. There will be neither a fresh general election nor a Brexit II referendum.

The trouble is that each day this blindfold exploration project uncovers fresh deposits of collateral damage from David Cameron's extraordinary gamble. The most significant discovery, if the European trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom is to be believed, is that there will be an extended purgatory of negotiations, first about exit and only then about a new trade relationship. As soon as the UK parliament triggers the Lisbon treaty's Article 50, a period of two years for negotiations would be followed by actual British exit before talks on a new trade deal even commence. It could take several further years before that second negotiation concludes, if it ever does. Britain's access to the single market will, if Ms Malmstrom's understanding of the process prevails, contain three distinct phases. Until about the end of 2018 Britain will be a full member of the EU. It would then, possibly for several years, be a third country with no preferential access at all. It would trade with EU countries under the default rules of the World Trade Organisation which embraces 162 countries accounting for virtually all of international commerce. The WTO is not a free trade area: there are tariffs, mainly at low levels, for manufactured goods (many are zero) but with less liberal arrangements for agricultural products and services. This WTO interregnum would usher in a golden career autumn for Ireland's smuggling fraternity, whose ancient skills have fallen victim to the evils of free trade and globalisation.

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