The critical error with the Article 50-based ‘exit plans’ so far proposed for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is that they all fail to take into account the immediate shift in the balance of power a formal notification of withdrawal would bring.
Even the EU itself recognises the sudden change in the dynamics of its relationship with a member State acting upon its intention to leave. It is in response to this foreseen situation – and the very real danger it holds for the EU – that Article 50 was introduced with the Lisbon Treaty. The article acts as a container in which the EU can acknowledge and manage that de facto power-shift and move towards a beneficial – or, more precisely, the least-detrimental – outcome for itself.
An exit plan built upon the premise that the EU is largely superfluous to the process of a national government adopting international trade law should (were the plan either a bold or intellectually sound one) identify the circumstance in which all the EU’s member States would become painfully aware of this home-truth. Just such a sobering moment would arrive – with all of its imminent calamity – on the day a powerful State withdraws from the EU without an Agreement in place. In this event, all conceptions of the EU would quickly transform… from it being an idealised, benign supra-government (as it so promotes itself) – to it being a dangerous and dispensable obstacle to the continued wellbeing of many millions of European citizens. The people, that is, facing the loss of livelihoods which depend – directly and indirectly – upon a continuance of the vast trade networks which exist between them and the departing State. At this juncture, necessity becomes the mother of intervention.
Clearly, the EU would want at all costs to avoid a turn of events in which its own superfluousness (as a layer of government) is brought starkly to the public fore by the act of its own prior intransigence around the Article 50 negotiating table. Especially so, when word on the street and strada is that all Britain wanted (and offers) is a free trade arrangement – along with the ability to manage its own borders and the return of its sovereignty.
Any planned exit procedure with the wisdom to recognise the precarious situation the EU would immediately find itself in as a result of Britain’s formal notification of withdrawal, would never attempt to pre-handcuff the country to something as timid and lacking in foresight as a ‘Norway option’ followed by decades of further disentanglements (should governments of the day have the political inclination to continue).
The provision of Article 50 is – to those mindful enough of its concessionary function – indisputable evidence that the EU recognises and accepts an imperative to organise and agree to something substantially different with a nation having the power and stature of Great Britain. Should Britain send just fifty international negotiators, for example, to conduct these vital constitutional talks, it would represent a massive 200,000 man-hours of negotiation over the EU’s allotted timeframe of two years in which to make a conclusive, far-reaching new agreement.
An effective exit strategy, therefore, is one which recognises the very strong hand Britain would take with it to the negotiating table and the near certainty of the EU acquiescing fully and rapidly to its very reasonable demands. ‘Norway options’, on the other hand, prove nothing but the EU’s historical success at crushing a nation’s vision and undermining its political confidence.