Government and Institutions

The mirage of a ‘clean Brexit’

When I went to a gym for the first time, in 1998 or so, membership options were very straightforward: you were either a member, or you weren’t. Some gyms would allow you to vary the length of the contracting period, but that was the height of flexibility.

Today, membership options at most gyms are so varied that the very term ‘gym membership’ doesn’t mean much anymore: you need to specify which one. Is that a weightlifting-only membership? Classes-only? Off-peak hours, multi-club access, pay as you go, all-inclusive with access to swimming pool and sauna?

Advocates of a Hard Brexit – or as they prefer, ‘clean Brexit’ – erroneously think of ‘Europe’ as you would think of a 1990s gym. You are either in, or you are out. If you cancelled your membership, only to find out a few weeks later that you’re still signed up for the cardio classes (and charged for them), you would see that as fraud. It would mean being ‘half in, half out’. You haven’t really left. It’s not the real thing. My guess is that in few years’ time, Hard Brexiteers will sound a lot like socialists: ‘But that wasn’t REAL Brexit. REAL Brexit has never been tried’.

It makes much more sense to think of ‘Europe’ as a set of overlapping programmes and institutions, many of which are related to the EU without being the EU. Countries can take part in some of them while steering clear of others. It is more like a 2017 gym than a 1990s gym.

This is obscured by the fact that once you are a member of the EU, unless you specifically secure an opt-out, you are generally obliged to take part in the full range of activities: the Customs Union, the Single Market, the Eurozone, the Schengen Agreement, the Erasmus Programme, the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, and so on.

But once you are on the outside, you can pick and choose the bits that you like, provided the other members accept you, and provided you pay your share of the programme costs. Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are part of the Schengen Area, without being members of the EU. The latter three are also part of the Single Market. But none of them are part of the Customs Union, the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Turkey and Monaco, are part of the Customs Union, without being members of the Single Market.

It is, of course, possible not to take part in any European programme, just like it is possible to leave a gym altogether. You can go for a hard Gymxit: Just because the possibility to participate in selected activities, on a case-by-case basis, exists, does not mean that you have to use it.

But I doubt that anyone really wants an ultra-hard Brexit, even if many say they do. Let’s take the Single European Sky agreement, which is about the joint management of European airspace. Air traffic management in Europe is measurably less efficient than air traffic management in the US, and the reason for that is fragmentation. The US is one single airspace, whereas air space in Europe is (or was, until very recently) divided along national boundaries. Since we don’t really do domestic flights in Europe, the nation state is simply not the appropriate unit for air traffic management. It is possible to be part of the Single European Sky agreement without being a member of the EU. It works for Norway and Switzerland, and it could work for the UK after Brexit.

Or take the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), the European cap-and-trade scheme, under which companies that emit CO2 need to buy tradable carbon permits. I’m not a fan of ‘decarbonisation’ – I’d rather adapt to climate change – but clearly, some decarbonisation policies are worse than others, and ETS is one of the least bad ones. It is possible to take part in the ETS without being an EU member, which is what Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland do. The UK could do so as well after Brexit.

It is also very likely that the UK will continue to participate in Euratom, Erasmus, and various other, less well-known European programmes. Even under the hardest of Hard Brexits, the UK will continue to cooperate more closely with the rest of Europe than, say, Japan and South Korea do. Most international cooperation involves giving up some degree of sovereignty.

And as far as I can see, nobody really has a problem with that. Hard Brexiteers are not isolationists. I doubt they lose sleep over the possibility of the UK remaining a participant of the Single European Sky programme. It could well be, of course, that participation in these less high-profile programmes is advantageous to the UK, while participation in the Single Market is not. That’s an empirical question. But there is no qualitative difference between being part in the Single European Sky and being part of the Single Market, or, for that matter, being a signatory of a comprehensive free trade deal. Hard Brexiteers like to claim that as long as you don’t have control over your borders, you are not a truly sovereign nation. That sounds superficially plausible. But so would “As long as you don’t have control over your own air space, you are not a truly sovereign nation”, or “As long as you don’t have control over the amount of French wine coming in, you are not a truly sovereign nation”.

We are talking about differences in degree rather than ‘real Brexit’ vs ‘unreal Brexit’. It is nonsense to claim that a Brexit which involves staying in the Single Market is not a ‘real’ Brexit. It is nonsense to claim that a harder Brexit is automatically ‘more democratic’ than a softer Brexit. We did not vote for any particular kind of Brexit. We voted for Brexit. Nothing more, nothing less.

We currently have the equivalent of a relatively inclusive gym membership (not an all-inclusive one, since we are not members of the Eurozone or Schengen). We are now about to downgrade it to a looser one, maybe pay-as-you-gym or cardio-only. But we are not leaving the gym altogether, and nobody really wants to. There is no such thing as a ‘clean’ Brexit. Brexit is a matter of picking the right programmes, that’s all.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

6 thoughts on “The mirage of a ‘clean Brexit’”

  1. Posted 29/06/2017 at 10:47 | Permalink

    Kris, I am not sure that you are correct about this.

    For some European programmes states (whether in the EU or not) simply co-operate to mutual advantage. An example of this is the air traffic agreement you cite.

    The ‘single market’, however, is rather different since it involves signing up to something over which only the EU – and no other party – has control. The EU would set external tariffs, would be responsible for third party trade agreements. etc. – the UK would have precisely no say.

  2. Posted 29/06/2017 at 11:13 | Permalink

    Nope. You’re describing the Customs Union, not the Single Market. They are separable. Norway, Iceland & Liechtenstein can an do conclude their own trade agreements.

  3. Posted 29/06/2017 at 15:21 | Permalink

    America, Russia, China, Australia, Japan and many other nations trade with the EU, without having a specific trade deal with the EU, and without being part of the single market, or Customs union. I would like that sort of “clean Brexit”, so we can very quickly sign free trade deals with the 36 nations (6 of which are in the world’s top 10 biggest economies) which comprise 5 billion consumers and a combined GDP 4 times greater than the EU’s, without having to hand over a shred of our democratic sovereignty.

    Looking forward over the next 40 years, the UK will definitely be better off as an independendent, self governing nation whilst creating a free trade area 4 times more valuable than the EU, than staying in a protectionist block and paying a fortune in membership fees and sovereign democratic loss, in order to remain a member.

  4. Posted 29/06/2017 at 15:45 | Permalink

    “We did not vote for any particular kind of Brexit.”

    Yes, we did. Both sides repeatedly stated before the vote that a vote to leave would be a vote to leave the Single Market. Remain often lied in implying that leaving the single market would mean losing all access to the single market. They have repeatedly lied since that they ever stated that we voted to leave the single market. They claimed falsely that we only voted to leave the EU and not leave the single market, when that is implicitly what we voted for by voting leave after being told repeatedly by both sides that leaving meant no longer being a member of the single market. They lied repeatedly before the vote, about the immediate and instant economic collapse (deep recession, millions of jobs lost, Calais refugee camp moving to Kent etc…) and then changed their lies after the vote to keep lying, (we never voted to leave the single market) to try to stop the will of the people being implemented. The disgusting extremist behaviour of the remainers shames our democracy. We need to have a baseline of WTO access to the single market without membership, and full control of our laws, solely judged by British Judges in British courts under UK law, and if we can negotiate better access, with reduced or zero tariffs to the Single Market, without ANY oversight by the European Court of Justice, then that would be a bonus. Bottom line is that the EU courts must no longer have any say whatsoever over UK institutions or people.

  5. Posted 29/06/2017 at 16:38 | Permalink

    No mention of the European Medicines Agency? Currently based in London but now looking for a new home. Norway is a member, but Switzerland isn’t. What we do will be hugely important in terms of drug approvals and access to new medicines in the UK.

  6. Posted 18/08/2017 at 09:37 | Permalink

    But once you are on the outside, you can pick and choose the bits that you like, **provided the other members accept you**, and provided you pay your share of the programme costs.

    Yes, provided that the other members accept you. See? Provided that the other members accept you.

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