- Unanswered questions
Brexit has many potential implications, but among them is a need to define national policies on subjects previously dealt with jointly with our partners at European level.
First and foremost are the sectors in which we jointly operate common rules for the common market. The EU deal was that a continent-wide free market was balanced by having rules for that market on workers’ rights, environmental standards, consumer protection and fair competition, and a common system for intervening in sectors traditionally subsidised by governments, notably agriculture. [End Page 61] It also involved a policy to help less prosperous regions.
Second, we currently participate in policies where, by pooling resources at European level and avoiding duplication, joint EU spending is more effective than national spending. A prime example here is our collaborative research programmes. But it’s not just about spending money: we co-operate on fighting transnational crime, managing aviation routes, sharing out fish stocks, and checking the safety of chemicals and medicines. Many other pragmatic co-operative efforts take place at EU level.
Third, there are areas where we act jointly with respect to the rest of the world. This gives us more clout in trade deals, overseas development aid, climate change negotiations and even peacekeeping operations.
In all these areas, we now face the prospect of the UK having to take unilateral decisions. But how different will they be? Some of the main questions are sketched out below.
Common rules for the common market
In this area, much depends on what Brexit really means. Two contradictory visions were offered by the Leave campaign in the referendum: ‘Soft Brexit’ - staying at least in the single market, which requires respecting its rules; and ‘Hard Brexit’ - leaving the single market, with no direct applicability of its rules, meaning that most things we sell to our main export market would face a tariff barrier and regulatory hurdles, costing market share and, ultimately, many jobs
Under the ‘soft’ option, much single market legislation would stay in place. We would also make some kind of financial contribution. From an economic point of view this is the least damaging option, but from a democratic and sovereignty point of view it is the worst: we would still be following the rules, but have given up our say on them.
Under the ‘hard’ option, we would have no direct legal obligation to follow EU rules, but, in practice, we might often choose to. This might happen because there is no particular reason to diverge, especially where that might leave us, for instance, as the only country in Europe not following a common standard on air passenger rights or roaming charges. Or it might happen because the EU norm has become a de facto global standard, as with the REACH legislation on chemicals. Or it might [End Page 62] even happen because the EU has insisted on it as part of our agreement with them on other matters. As with the ‘soft’ option, however, we would in practice have to follow any future changes to those rules without having a say on them.
The extent to which the Conservative government will seek to weaken workers’ rights, environmental standards and consumer protection is as yet unclear. The right wing of the party has made no secret of its view of Brexit as a ‘liberation’ from ‘red tape’. A weakening of such standards seems highly likely - and indeed some oppose the ‘soft Brexit’ option for this very reason.
A further question remains with regard to farming. How can we secure the continued ability of the UK farming sector to export to the EU without facing tariffs or quotas? Does it not require a subsidy regime identical to that of the CAP? If British farmers have a lower level of subsidy than their competitors, how will they compete? If they have a higher level, how will they be allowed to sell in the single market?
Will the UK seek to continue to participate in the European Arrest Warrant, in the European Chemicals Agency, the European Medicines Agency, the European ‘open skies’ aviation arrangement, the European trademark system and patent court, the European Environment Agency...