First published in The Spectator UK, 27 October 2018
It’s pretty hard for Britain’s friends, here in Australia, to make sense of the mess that’s being made of Brexit. The referendum result was perhaps the biggest-ever vote of confidence in the United Kingdom, its past and its future. But the British establishment doesn’t seem to share that confidence and instead looks desperate to cut a deal, even if that means staying under the rule of Brussels. Looking at this from abroad, it’s baffling: the country that did the most to bring democracy into the modern world might yet throw away the chance to take charge of its own destiny.
Let’s get one thing straight: a negotiation that you’re not prepared to walk away from is not a negotiation — it’s surrender. It’s all give and no get. When David Cameron tried to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership, he was sent packing because Brussels judged (rightly) that he’d never actually back leaving. And since then, Brussels has made no real concessions to Theresa May because it judges (rightly, it seems) that she’s desperate for whatever deal she can get.
The EU’s palpable desire to punish Britain for leaving vindicates the Brexit project. Its position, now, is that there’s only one ‘deal’ on offer, whereby the UK retains all of the burdens of EU membership but with no say in setting the rules. The EU seems to think that Britain will go along with this because it’s terrified of no deal. Or, to put it another way, terrified of the prospect of its own independence.
But even after two years of fear-mongering and vacillation, it’s not too late for robust leadership to deliver the Brexit that people voted for. It’s time for Britain to announce what it will do if the EU can’t make an acceptable offer by March 29 next year — and how it would handle no deal. Freed from EU rules, Britain would automatically revert to world trade, using rules agreed by the World Trade Organisation. It works pretty well for Australia. So why on earth would it not work just as well for the world’s fifth-largest economy?
A world trade Brexit lets Britain set its own rules. It can say, right now, that it will not impose any tariff or quota on European produce and would recognise all EU product standards. That means no border controls for goods coming from Europe to Britain. You don’t need to negotiate this: just do it. If Europe knows what’s in its own best interests, it would fully reciprocate in order to maintain entirely free trade and full mutual recognition of standards right across Europe.
Next, the UK should declare that Europeans already living here should have the right to remain permanently — and, of course, become British citizens if they wish. This should be a unilateral offer. Again, you don’t need a deal. You don’t need Michel Barnier’s permission. If Europe knows what’s best for itself, it would likewise allow Britons to stay where they are.
Third, there should continue to be free movement of people from Europe into Britain — but with a few conditions. Only for work, not welfare. And with a foreign worker’s tax on the employer, to make sure anyone coming in would not be displacing British workers.
Fourth, no ‘divorce bill’ whatsoever should be paid to Brussels. The UK government would assume the EU’s property and liabilities in Britain, and the EU would assume Britain’s share of these in Europe. If Britain was getting its fair share, these would balance out; and if Britain wasn’t getting its fair share, it’s the EU that should be paying Britain.
Finally, there’s no need on Britain’s part for a hard border with Ireland. Britain wouldn’t be imposing tariffs on European goods, so there’s no money to collect. The UK has exactly the same product standards as the Republic, so let’s not pretend you need to check for problems we all know don’t exist. Some changes may be needed but technology allows for smart borders: there was never any need for a Cold War-style Checkpoint Charlie. Irish citizens, of course, have the right to live and work in the UK in an agreement that long predates EU membership.
Of course, the EU might not like this British leap for independence. It might hit out with tariffs and impose burdens on Britain as it does on the US — but WTO rules put a cap on any retaliatory action. The worst it can get? We’re talking levies of an average 4 or 5 per cent. Which would be more than offset by a post-Brexit devaluation of the pound (which would have the added bonus of making British goods more competitive everywhere).
UK officialdom assumes that a deal is vital, which is why so little thought has been put into how Britain might just walk away. Instead, officials have concocted lurid scenarios featuring runs on the pound, gridlock at ports, grounded aircraft, hoarding of medicines and flights of investment. It’s been the pre-referendum Project Fear campaign on steroids. And let’s not forget how employment, investment and economic growth ticked up after the referendum.
As a former prime minister of Australia and a lifelong friend of your country, I would say this: Britain has nothing to lose except the shackles that the EU imposes on it. After the courage shown by its citizens in the referendum, it would be a tragedy if political leaders go wobbly now. Britain’s future has always been global, rather than just with Europe. Like so many of Britain’s admirers, I want to see this great country seize this chance and make the most of it.