LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Brexit is a risky business. Last week’s publication of contingency plans for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union without a deal is an embarrassing reminder of that fact. Advocates of independence failed to realise that virtually all British foreign trade and transport relies on membership of the EU, or on a comprehensive deal with the bloc.
Advocates of a so-called “clean break” have nothing helpful to say to citizens worried about shortages of food and medicine. That seems strange. After all, many Brexit supporters have spent decades campaigning against the EU. Surely that gave them enough time to engage in some granular thinking?
Supporters of staying in the EU argue that the real problem is fundamental: it is stupid to leave the world’s largest economic bloc. But even if that judgement is correct, there was a less destructive way to leave. Opponents of the EU would have discovered it if they had followed the standard practice of generals and debaters – know the enemy. The history of the European Union’s construction could have inspired a more practical approach.
In the imagination of many Brexit supporters, Britain is tethered to the EU by the fact of membership. The UK’s European Communities Act of 1972 and its successor legislation amount to a single thick cord across the English Channel. Cut that cord with a sharp legal saw and Britain can find its own place in the world.
That simple image fits well with lofty talk of free trade and national sovereignty. In practice, however, the ties that bind European countries only start with the basic law. After 45 years of membership, thousands of little strings entwine the UK with the rest of Europe.
Take pharmaceuticals. The EU sets common standards for approvals of new drugs, inspections of manufacturing facilities and tests of actual products. Individual nations work both separately and together to develop and enforce these standards. There are millions of pages of relevant paperwork, creating the framework for a European pool of knowledge and the habits of regional cooperation.
Had the UK not joined the EU, it could have created its own national pharmaceutical regulations, as in Canada and Japan. It could do so now, but the process will take many years. Until then, Britain needs an agreement of mutual recognition with the EU to keep drugs flowing.
Brexit involves repeating this process of re-imagining and re-regulating dozens of times. Each sector has its own complex legal agreements, detailed specifications, ingrained habits and shared responsibilities. Wrenching Britain from this bureaucratic edifice without a deal will leave the country shivering in the economic wilderness.
The regulatory and legal construction may look passionless, but the seemingly endless technical specifications express some powerful ideas. Many of these tiny ties were controversial. People had to decide whether to compromise and cooperate or to bicker and divide. Time and time again, the ideal of a peaceful, prosperous Europe pushed the participants to favour community over national interest.
The two simultaneous tracks of noble ideas and messy details were set by 1952, when the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established. The ultimate goal of this predecessor to the EU was to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”, in the words of Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister. The commitment to everlasting regional peace went beyond lofty rhetoric. It took the very tangible form of annual national production quotas for coke, pig iron and laminated steel.
Proponents of Brexit forgot the second part: they did not sweat the details. This negligence led the UK government to send its notice of withdrawal in March 2017, before the finer points had been considered. The end of that two-year process is now so close that the self-inflicted havoc of a “no deal” break is a real possibility. Drug companies are planning emergency stockpiles.
It’s true that even the most carefully constructed Brexit would have hurt the British economy. A departure inevitably severs so many ties that the nation’s intellectual capital would be significantly impaired.
However, the damage could have been minimised by emulating, in reverse, the people who created the ECSC. Britain and the EU could have entered into painfully detailed talks about how to replace each of the hundreds of aspects of EU membership. That would have required years of fraught negotiations, but common economic interest and some lingering shared ideals could have helped the two sides work through the fine points.
It is too late for that now. But whatever happens with Brexit, there is a lesson for political and economic idealists. Dreams may be inspirational, but they are pointless – or toxic – unless they can be translated into tedious policies.
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