Since January 2013, and the announcement by British Prime Minister David Cameron of his plan to hold a referendum on continued UK membership of the European Union, there has been much speculation about the possible effects of a so-called ‘Brexit’. However, it can be no more than speculation, because no member state of the EU has ever left the club, leaving us to sail through uncharted waters.
On several preliminary points we need to be clear. First, the promise of a referendum is less about a genuine effort to put the question to a national vote than to head off a dispute within the governing Conservative party, which is deeply split on Europe. There are shades here of the last time Britain had a referendum on Europe, in 1975; this too was prompted mainly by a dispute within the governing party, although then it was Labour.
Second, there is no certainty that there will actually be a referendum. In order for one to be held, the Conservatives will need to win an outright majority at the 2015 general election. However, they have not been doing well in the polls and, ironically, their chances of winning have been diminished by the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the one political party that is most in favour of a British exit.
Finally, even if a referendum is held there is no certainty that it will result in support for leaving. One of the effects of Cameron’s announcement has been to encourage a more active debate about the implications of a Brexit, and polls show that public opinion is wavering: where most surveys in 2013 found that more people would vote to leave than to stay, during 2014 they have so far found more people voting to stay than to leave. On few occasions has there been majority support for either option, making the “don’t knows” a critical element in the outcome.
Negotiating the Terms of an Exit
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that a referendum is held which results in a decision to leave. The effects would be twofold.
First, there would need to be a formal renegotiation of the details of the legal agreements reached by the UK as a member, some of them dating back to the terms of its 1973 accession to the European Economic Community (EEC). While no doubt a long list of such agreements could be established and reviewed, it would be far from complete; membership of the EU has involved a large number of changes to domestic law that would be hard to identify and even harder to undo.
We do even not know for certain how many domestic laws have been impacted by the requirements of EU membership. Critics of the EU place the number as high as 80 per cent, but a more considered assessment in 2010 by the House of Commons Library concluded that it was closer to 7 per cent. The report also noted that there was no totally accurate, rational or useful way of calculating the percentage of national laws based on or influenced by the EU, mainly because EU and national databases are not reliable, and differentiating between EU-generated and nationally generated changes to the law is not easy. Continue reading