How right Bill Clinton was right to stress the importance of economic consequences. For sure, leaving the EU will not be the cake walk some were led to believe. There will be major economic pain: the constant drip of cancelled investments, lost jobs and an increasing flow of companies relocating parts of their businesses. Not to mention the scary prospect of cliff-edge scenarios. However, there is much more to Brexit than just economics. We ignore at our peril four irrefutable political truths.
Firstly, geography still matters. We cannot become the mid-Atlantic globalists that some Brexiteers claim. As Margaret Thatcher said, Britain is and can only be European. Europe will always be a major influence on us (happily there can be much influence in the other direction too) and what happens on the Continent, for better or for worse, affects us massively too. Two world wars attest to that, as do enhancements to our security, our prosperity and our standing in the world thanks to the European Union. In fact, history matters too- it teaches us that we do not remain secure or prosperous for long when we are disengaged from the Continent.
Secondly, being sovereign masters of our own universe is not an option, (except perhaps in a universe that is shrinking and ever more impoverished). In reality, hugely complex sets of interdependencies exist between us and our continental partners. They are inescapable. In fact, links and spill-overs between advanced nations such as ours are growing in number, intensity and impact over the full range of issues that governments and citizens alike care about. Inside the EU, Britain has gained massively, if not always tangibly, from structures allowing all 28 member states to manage these interdependencies through communicating fully, taking effective decisions together and, where desirable, coordinating actions. While not always perfect, these proven and tested structures mean we are not forced to react piecemeal to a mass of challenges great and small through ad hoc and adversarial responses. Enforced ad hoc responses and improvisation will be a recipe for chaos making the process of actually leaving the EU seem the (relatively) easy part.
Thirdly, clubs exist for the benefit of their members. Not for non-members, and certainly not for ex-members. The EU is just such a club. The Brexit error of confusing European Commission with European Union is particularly serious in overlooking the crucial role of the European Council. This is where the Member States act together. It is the Member States in Council that exercise ownership of the European treaties (in effect the club’s rule-making). The Council takes decisions based on the interests and preferences of its members. Reassuring when you are in the club, but potentially painful after you have left.
Finally, if we are not at the table, we shall be on the menu. Other member governments will (rightly) pursue their national interests in various Council formats, while Britain’s chair will remain empty. Consequently, our views will not be properly heard and our interests unrepresented. The Northern Ireland border and Gibraltar are only the beginning. Think also of policies as varied as environmental policy, immigration, industrial policy, trading standards and a full range of issues that affect Britain directly. Where our interests collide with those of another Member State’s, the club will naturally tend to favour the interests of the member over and above ours.
It is a sad fact of human nature to value benefits most acutely only once they have been foregone and for any who care about Britain’s long-term future, these political truths should cause grave reflection. There will be no more entitlements. We will not get the sorts of favours we have been able to take for granted thus far, and will be more acutely aware of the risks in being at odds with our near-abroad on issues that matter profoundly to us.
The deeper effects of Brexit will not be adequately summed up in sound-bites or statistics. They may be very long term or intangible. But they are the consequences we will most regret over time. And for sure, they are not just about the economy.
Andrew is the Foreign Affairs and Defence Editor at Comment Central. He brings to the role over 25 years experience in the UK Diplomatic Service, as well as time in the EU and NATO systems. He is also Director of Stabilitas Associates, an internationally-focused public policy consultancy. The article was initially published on Comment Central.