Britain isn’t in the last chance saloon yet There’s still an outside chance of avoiding Brexit altogether.
As Theresa May hurtles towards triggering Article 50, there are three main scenarios: Hard Brexit; Very Hard Brexit; and no Brexit at all. I put the chances at roughly 60%, 30% and 10% respectively.
But these percentages are not set in stone. Much depends on the actions all of us are willing to take. After the prime minister’s flimsy White Paper, there is no chance of Soft Brexit. The scenario that would cushion the blow the most – membership of the single market and customs union – is not on offer.
A Hard Brexit would involve a deal to quit the EU – but not a good one. A Very Hard Brexit would involve crashing out without any deal at all.
Under the merely ‘hard’ variety, EU citizens here and Brits in the rest of the EU would have their rights guaranteed and we would negotiate a rough outline of a new trade deal as well as a transitional arrangement in the two-year period allowed for under Article 50.
It would take perhaps another five years to nail down the final trade deal. But that wouldn’t do much for our world-beating services industries. Goods exports would still suffer problems at borders. We’d also have to pay an exit fee running into tens of billions of pounds.
The economy would become less dynamic because of the loss of skills and reduced access to international markets. Uncertainty would also be a drag for years. But the damage would not probably stop May winning the 2020 election, so weak is the official opposition.
Under a Very Hard Brexit, by contrast, we would refuse to pay what the EU says we owe. It would then pursue us through the international courts.
We’d have to fall back on the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to govern our trade with the EU. That would involve the imposition of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, which nowadays are a bigger block to commerce than tariffs for most industries. We might even struggle to fit smoothly into the WTO given that each of its members, including the EU, would have a veto.
The fate of EU citizens already here and Brits across the Channel might be up in air. The economy would fall off a cliff, causing a recession. There would also be political turmoil. The Tories might lose the 2020 election, especially if Labour had by then chosen a better leader.
Hard Brexit is the more likely scenario because crashing out would be bad for us and the rest of the EU. This is not just about economics. We live in an increasingly dangerous world – with terrorist threats, Vladimir Putin trying to undermine western democracy, and Donald Trump in the White House.
But good sense may not prevail. The prime minister has already said no deal is better than a bad one. The talks could easily become acrimonious – especially if we again threaten to become a Singapore-style tax haven if we don’t get our way, or make more jibes suggesting EU leaders want to give us ‘punishment beatings’ as in a Second World War movie.
May’s decision to suck up to Trump could also poison the talks, as the US president is hostile to the EU. Britain could be seen as allied with an enemy.
What’s more, EU leaders worry that their club could fall apart. They cannot allow us to exit with such a good deal that others follow suit. If Emmanuel Macron or Martin Schulz wins this year’s elections in France and Germany, it will be even harder to get a good deal. Both are staunch pro-Europeans who will put maintaining the integrity of the EU way above economic considerations.
Meanwhile, the European Commission doesn’t want to discuss a new trade deal until there’s progress on how much money we’ll pay – with the opening bid expected to be around 60 billion euros. If it sticks to this line, the Brexiters may go ballistic – making it tricky for May to stay at the negotiating table.
A further problem is that there isn’t long to nail down a deal and no realistic prospect of stopping the two-year clock if we run out of time. There’s no adult who could knock heads together either. If Barack Obama was still US president, he could have done that. But Trump would probably revel in the chaos rather than tell the two sides to shelve their differences.
The prospect of crashing out of the EU, though, is also the scenario that could lead to us not leaving at all. The markets might go haywire if they thought the PM was driving the economy over a cliff – particularly if, as seems likely, inflation was also rising. International investors could start cancelling projects, and business (which is currently meek) could start sounding the alarm.
External factors could also start to impinge on voters’ minds. If there was a geopolitical shock – say as a result of more unhinged behaviour by Trump – it might seem foolish to abandon our European friends and tie our fortunes to the US president. His planned state visit could crystallise these views.
There is even a chance that the EU will change its attitude to free movement of people as a result of rising populism on the continent. If so, it might be able to offer Britain a concession to stay in the bloc.
In a such a situation, people could start changing their minds about Brexit. Parliament might then have the guts to say enough is enough and insist on new referendum to see if the public really wants to leave.
Of course, the PM might then call a snap general election. But if she’d lost the support of parliament and the people, she might not be able to pull off such a gambit.
At the moment, many pro-Europeans are downcast and can’t see any way forward. One hears phrases like the ship has left the port. But, if the weather is stormy, ships can turn around and head back to port. They certainly should.
Hugo Dixon is editor-in-chief of InFacts and co-founder of CommonGround