EU Referendum

EU Referendum: an open goal for Cameron


"Leave" campaigners, writes Booker, may have dismissed those papers produced last week by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to give the Government's line on Brexit as no more than "baloney" and "scaremongering"; and certainly the FCO’s analysis is terrifying stuff.

We get the impression that it was drafted by clever lawyers, to a brief that they must paint the prospects for a British exit from the EU in as black a light as possible. But there is much in it that the Leave campaigners themselves have not yet begun to understand.

When I say "clever", this is because a lot of what the FCO says is true. It emphasises, as this column has long pointed out, that the only legal way we can leave the EU is by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. They point out that extricating ourselves would not be a simple, sudden act but would involve a long, very complex process – not least because it would be vital for us not to be excluded from the Single Market (which is "Project Fear's" chief argument for us to remain).

When the FCO officials then review all the different options put forward by prominent "leave" campaigners, one imagines what fun they must have had in portraying the process as a murky labyrinth in which every passageway leads only to a disastrous dead end. Again, in much of this they are right. They dismiss the ludicrous idea that our exit could be achieved just by repealing the European Communities Act, which would simply be to ignore international treaty law.

They rightly explain why one-off trade deals, such as those between the EU and Canada or Switzerland, are out of the question, not least because these took many more years to negotiate than would be possible in the two allowed for under Article 50.

When it comes to the idea of relying just on the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the FCO in fact misses a trick – by failing to point out how this could produce the most disastrous outcome of all, whereby EU countries could still export to Britain while we were barred from exporting to them.

But in other respects the FCO is blatantly dishonest, as when it claims, without any authority, that "the British people would expect" Article 50 to be invoked straight after the referendum. In practical terms, this would be out of the question, since both sides would need up to a year to prepare before full negotiations could begin.

Even more telling, however, is how wilfully the FCO misrepresents what it dismisses as "the Norway option" (clearly the one that most worries it), allowing Britain to remain part of the Single Market as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA).

When, for instance, it makes the familiar Europhile claim that Norway has no say in passing Single Market laws, this deliberately obscures the fact that, as a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and the Nordic Council, Norway has more say in the preliminary drafting of those rules than Britain.

It has even more say in drafting the ever-growing number of Single Market rules that are passed down to the EU from global bodies, such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, on which Norway sits in its own right as an independent nation, while Britain is represented only by the EU, with only a small part in deciding what the EU’s position should ever be.

If Britain outside the EU was to join the EFTA and the EEA, this would not only give us more influence over much EU legislation than we have now, but, if used wisely, might pave the way to creating the kind of inter-governmentally agreed Europe-wide market envisaged by Churchill after the war, no longer dominated by the oppressively supranational mechanisms of Brussels.

If by any chance the referendum should put us in the position of having to discuss a wholly new reality outside the EU, the only way we could hope to succeed would be by keeping negotiations amicable and positive. Yet ironically, the last people we should want to represent us in the negotiations would be those same Europhile officials responsible for the wholly negative, defeatist line taken in these two sad propaganda documents.

Not that it seems likely at present that we shall find ourselves in that position. Because if anything is likely to ensure that Britain votes to remain, it is the way the "leave" campaigners are all over the shop, without any remotely plausible and properly worked-out plan for how to achieve what they claim to want.