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10 March 2015

An EU explainer for the easily bored: what happens if we leave?

Doom, whisky, and getting lost in mazes: what are the options for the UK flouncing out of the European Union?

By Frances Robinson robinson

It’s some as-yet-unspecified time in 2017. I’m in the ballot box – maybe.

What? Well, Estonia’s had online voting for ten years, about a third of votes are cast online via an app, and it’s popular with younger people. So who know, maybe we could catch up with them. Although then young people might actually vote…

Fine. I’ve downloaded the app, and I’m ready! In or out??!?!

Of what? The EU, right? Yes, although don’t forget there’s the “renegotiation” first so the EU might look quite different.

OK, so we’ve got whatever the EU looks like as “in” – what’s “out”? A very good question. There’s four main options. Let’s start with the Norwegian model.

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Let’s! OMG Scandinavians are soooo buff :) No, not that kind of model. Norway is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which means it has access to the single market of the 28 EU member states.

Great, we can keep selling all those cars. Yes, and applying all the rules of the single market, ie. free movement of goods, people capital and services. Norway sell a lot of gas, oil and salmon to the EU – Vidar Helgesen, their minister for EU affairs, reckons the country provides Europe with 23m seafood meals a day, and they apply ALL the rules as well. But they don’t get a say in making them.

All the rules? The vast majority. Agriculture is the big exception. According to Mr Helgesen, during the past 20 years, Norway has incorporated more than 10,000 EU rules into the EEA Agreement: roughly five acts of EU legislation for each day the Norwegian parliament has been sitting. It also has to pay into the EU budget.

Oh. To use an old Brussels chestnut, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. And, to state the obvious, the UK doesn’t have a bajillion squillion barrels of oil. Norway does.

OK, how about option two: Switzerland? You can make your own cuckoo-clock jokes: Switzerland has a close relationship with the EU based on a series of bilateral agreements, including a free trade deal signed in 1972. Switzerland is the EU’s fourth largest trading partner, while the EU is Switzerland’s largest.

Sounds great! It’s tempting. But they only get access to parts of the single market. And that doesn’t include services, which is the part which is most interesting for the UK. Then last year, in a referendum, the country narrowly voted to reintroduce immigration quotas. After that, EU officials said Switzerland can’t “cherry-pick” from the treaties.

So what happens? If the EU-Switzerland relationship were on Facebook, it’d be under “It’s complicated”. Politicians have until 2017 to figure out what to do. Any solution could set a precedent for what happens with a post-breakup UK. And they still pay a lot to the EU.

Alright. Option three? Turkey. It’s in a customs union. So we could trade some goods without tariffs, etc, but not have to pay membership fees or bother with immigration. It was the first step in an EU accession program that stalled in 2002, and again, there’s zero influence on anything the EU actually does.

Doesn’t sound great. Also, bear in mind any of these options depend on the EU agreeing in a post-withdrawal negotiation – a bit like getting a divorce and then asking if you can still use the Wi-Fi, the bathroom three days a week and have your ex’s loyalty-card points.

We could eavesdrop while using the bathroom. Right, all of these options rely on applying EU rules in the areas where you get the benefits, which is logical enough. If we left, those rules, standards, and plans would be decided without us in the room.

Unprecedented! No, it’s not. We’re not in the euro, and the countries that are still have meetings. So the UK Treasury used to formally instruct its permanent representation to send someone to sit outside the door “just in case they heard anything”, according to someone who’d know.

What were they expecting? Nobody knows. In practice it meant senior British officials sitting in the corridor outside the room on floor 50 of the Council into the small hours of the morning. Totes embarrassing.

Floor 50? It’s not that tall. It’s just the rooms in all the EU-buildings are maze-like. Seriously, it’s easier to find your way in space.

Currency union, borders, legal negotiations after an acrimonious split… this is reminding me of something… Right. Remember the Scottish referendum? And how the Scottish government said it’d like to stay in the EU, even while the Commission was all like “no you’d have to reapply like newbies”?

Nightmare. It would have been. As the Scotch Whisky Association points out, “the application of the EU’s trade environment means Scotch has become more accessible to a far wider audience”. It keeps a close eye on EU laws to make sure single malts can be sold across the single market. “Doubly important, as EU laws are sometimes used as the benchmark for other countries when considering new legislation,” it adds. Again, businesses would still have to comply with EU standards to export goods there.

What if we just leave, completely? We could. We’d get a seat at the World Trade Organization, where we’re currently represented as part of the EU. We could set up a free-trade deal with anyone who wanted one –although would you want to sign up with a country that had just flounced out of  a 28-country free-trade bloc? And there’d be total control of borders.

So that’ll be option four. Yes, and Chris Patten summed it up nicely in a lecture in Oxford 15 years ago. “’Sovereignty’ – in the sense of unfettered freedom of action – is a nonsense. A man, naked, hungry and alone in the middle of the Sahara Desert is free in the sense that no one can tell him what to do. He is sovereign, then. But he is also doomed.”