Amid all the referendum noise, it looks like they’re finally close to a date for the vote, likely to be in September this year.
That’s probably for the best. Even people who actually care what happens would lose the will to live if the question drags on for two more years.
And since companies anxious about the outcome will hold off big investments as long as there’s uncertainty, it’s better to get it over with.
In the run up to the Scottish referendum on independence in September 2014, there was plenty of insecurity about what an independent Scotland might look like.
Many of the uncertainties then, like the future Scottish currency, don’t apply here. But that doesn’t mean the answer to the question ‘what happens after Brexit?’ is any clearer.
It’s kind of bizarre that campaigns on both sides have kicked off, trying to convince you to vote a certain way, when neither party can tell us about the endgame.
The Brexit scenario doesn’t appear to be ready. There’s a lot of talk about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘taking back control’ but that’s all pretty abstract.
The ‘In’ case isn’t much clearer. To me it seems like the EU’s as serious about completing the single market as Barcelona is about finishing the Sagrada Familia.
We need someone to paint us a picture that’s less Picasso, whose works were open to interpretation, and more Manet, who painted things the way they were.
Neither the governing party, which will remain officially neutral, nor the biggest opposition party has handed us a script of post-EU Britain.
Meanwhile David Cameron is still pushing his agenda in the European heartland and can’t definitively say what ‘In’ will look like, either.
But assuming the PM’s negotiation won’t transport us to a completely novel reality, let’s focus on the big unknown: what’s next after Brexit?
What’s on offer?
Britain’s relationship with the EU is one of giving and taking, and even a good quarrel from time to time. It’s not unlike a marriage and the referendum will be a chance to renew vows or file for divorce.
So how might Britain move on if it decides to terminate the partnership? Here are the most likely options.
European Economic Area – EU minus the membership card
This option can be described as ‘not really in, not really out’, or, if you like, the Norway way.
It’s not really a great option because little would change. Britain would keep its access to the single market, but it would also keep contributing to the EU budget and adopt EU legislation without having a say over it.
Technically it could refuse to adopt legislation but that means it would lose access to that part of the market.
The free movement for people would still apply and EEA members can’t negotiate their own free trade agreements with third countries.
Bilateral accords – ‘It’s complicated’
Perhaps more desirable would be for the UK to become a ‘bigger Switzerland’. I’m not referring to a more neutral foreign policy stance but a series of bilateral accords with the EU.
The upside of this arrangement is that Britain would be free to negotiate its own free trade agreements. The downside is that it still pays the EU for access and it has to absorb EU laws in every sector covered by the agreement.
But it gets more complicated. When Swiss voters in a 2014 referendum chose to limit the free movement of foreign nationals, the country breached its deal with the EU.
Since then Switzerland has been shut out of various EU programmes. If the matter isn’t resolved by 2017 the so-called Guillotine clause could kill all EU-Swiss bilateral agreements.
Still, in theory this would probably be the best scenario but it’s based on the shaky premise that the EU would allow Britain to cherry pick from the treaties.
A free trade agreement: playing the field
A free trade agreement with the EU would give Britain the freedom to seal its own deals with non-EU countries. The more comprehensive the deal, the higher the volume of faxes from Brussels with regulations to be complied with.
On the bright side: no membership fees and no interference in Britain’s immigration policy. For these reasons it’s probably the option most favoured by ‘Outters’.
Britain could play the field and even go after the one it may secretly always felt more in sync with.
Sounds good, right? But what if Britain is no longer as desirable a trading partner as it once was?
‘America is not in the market for a free trade deal with Britain alone.’
Last October US Trade Representative Michael Froman hinted the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK may not be that special anymore.
Now, is this bluff?
Possibly. It’s no secret that the US wants Britain to stay in the EU, with Obama saying the country needs to stay in order to keep influence on the world stage.
But there’s no denying that leaving the EU would go against the trend.
In the age of globalisation, countries have started to think bigger than themselves. This is why trade arrangements are increasingly dominated by trade blocs (EU, Mercosur, ASEAN) and multinational trade deals (NAFTA, TTIP, TPP).
Assuming countries like the US, China and India would be interested in an FTA, is it likely that Britain will be able to negotiate a better deal on its own than as part of a trade bloc of 500 million people?
I’d say that’s a reasonable question to ask before heading for the exit. After all, Britain won’t just get out of the EU; it would also get out of over 50 free trade deals with non-EU countries.
If Britain leaves the EU, the implication should be that it’ll be better off without it. And while I’ll admit that ‘taking back control’ sounds good in a tabloid, it’s just an empty platitude when there’s no evidence you’re going to secure better deals on your own.
Is the grass really greener on the other side of the fence? I’m yet to be convinced.