There are four ways the UK can go from here with regard to Brexit, and all of them are bad.
First: hard Brexit, or no deal.
On 29th March 2019, the UK leaves the EU. If no deal has been agreed to, on 30th March 2019 the UK becomes a “third country”, in EU parlance – outside the EU, not part of the customs union, no access to EU agencies or EU funding, a hard land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – and between Spain and Gibraltar.
The inevitable and foreseeable consequences of this aren’t pretty. While Brexiteers have tried to argue with me that the countries of EU-27 won’t “let” this happen because hard Brexit will damage them too, they ignore two key points:
Unless the UK agrees to a deal, any deal, EU-27 can’t stop the UK leaving the EU to become a third country: once Article 50 is invoked, the timetable is set. Theresa May invoked Article 50 on 29th March 2017, and so on 29th March 2019, the UK leaves the EU: this is what Leavers voted for and this is what Article 50 says. EU-27 didn’t start this and can’t stop it.
While hard Brexit will be bad for EU-27, it will be catastrophic for the UK.
The UK imports a quarter of its food from EU-27. British supermarkets operate on a JIT (just-in-time) model of importing fresh food for sale from around the world. At the moment, transport from EU-27 arrives in the UK seamlessly – introduce customs checks and there will be delays, and worse, these may be unpredictable delays. The Eurotunnel and the UK’s Chamber of Shipping and the freight and haulage industry are all well aware of how catastrophic this will be. Not only will fresh food imported from EU-27 become more expensive, it will be less available, and it will not be as fresh as it was when it could pass seamlessly through the EU.
British farming is heavily dependent on seasonal migrant labour, many of whom are from EU-27 countries. And fresh produce from the UK is already being affected by Brexit, as migrant workers from the EU feel unwelcome in a country that voted by majority to tell them they were not wanted.
There will be food in the shops. But there will be less food, more expensive, lower-quality. Since 2010, child poverty has risen sharply: one in four children in the UK lives in poverty, and poverty means hunger. Questions advocates for no-deal Brexit should be asking (and are not): how will households already struggling to feed their children cope when food prices rise and food availability falls?
Supermarkets are not the only industry in the UK reliant on just-in-time imports: manufacturers across the UK have become dependent on JIT to provide parts and facilitate sales. Manufacturers cannot for their own business’s sake just hope that hard Brexit won’t happen: a UK deal with EU-27 will take a minimum of six months to be secured as all 27 national governments need to vote on it. Even the threat of hard Brexit will devastate UK manufacturing and mean mass unemployment in many areas.
Each of the EU-27 countries will see their economy affected by no-deal Brexit: each of them will have their economy dinged by 5% to 10% if the UK leaves the EU without a deal that allows EU-27 to continue to trade with the UK. Brexiteers have tried to argue that this means the individual EU-27 countries won’t permit no-deal Brexit: but what they are missing is that no-deal is survivable if unpleasant for EU-27 countries: it is devastating to the UK.
Nor is this all.
There are 31 EU agencies which do key work around the European Union. Two of them are based in the UK, the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority. Both will of course leave the UK next year, well before March 2019: deal or no deal, neither can be based outside the EU.
Besides the two soon-to-be-formerly-based in the UK agencies, there are the
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, European Environment Agency, European Institute of Innovation and Technology, European Training Foundation, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, European Union Intellectual Property Office, Community Plant Variety Office, European Food Safety Authority, European Maritime Safety Agency, European Aviation Safety Agency, European Network and Information Security Agency, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, European GNSS Agency, European Railway Agency, European Fisheries Control Agency, European Chemicals Agency, European Institute for Gender Equality, European Defence Agency, European Institute for Security, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training, European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, European body for the enhancement of judicial co-operation, Fundamental Rights Agency, Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications, European Systemic Risk Board, Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators, European Securities and Markets Authority, European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority, European Asylum Support Office, European Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT Systems in the area of freedom, security and justice, and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.
You may look down that list and think “why were we even paying for these?” I admit, I don’t actually know what effect it will have on the UK to lose access to all of these agencies at once on becoming a third country. Nor do I want to find out by the risky test of removing the UK’s access and finding out what happens next: yet that appears to be all the UK government is planning to do. Detailed research of that kind is normally done by large numbers of civil servants assigned to create impact assessments well in advance of a major change. According to David Davis, the impact assessments don’t yet exist – 17 months after Leave won the EU referendum – and he says it will take three weeks for the civil servants in the Department for Exiting the European Union to research and write them.
I haven’t mentioned the two Euratom agencies, the Euratom Supply Agency and the European Joint Undertaking for ITER and the Development of Fusion Energy. On 29th March 2019, if the UK leaves the EU in no-deal Brexit, the NHS ceases to have access to medical radioisotopes and the ceases to have access to fuel for the nuclear power stations.
Nuclear power provides 20% of the UK’s electricity. Patients who need radioisotopes need them now, and they can’t be stockpiled. All peaceful use of nuclear energy in the EU is governed by Euratom – the European Atomic Energy Community. The UK is a member state of the International Atomic Energy Agency in its own right, but since 1978, its compliance with the IAEA has been governed by Euratom. What happens on 30th March 2019, if no-deal Brexit goes ahead?
Nor is this all. On leaving the EU to become a third country, the UK obviously ceases to receive funding from the European structural and investment funds. £8.4 billion was awarded to the UK for 2014-2020. Anyone who thinks that the UK government will have £8.4 billion to spare after 2020 and will be allocating it to areas of economic deprivation probably still believes in the £350 million a week for the NHS.
Finally, on 29th March 2019, when the UK leaves the EU, the Good Friday Agreement terminates.
The Good Friday Agreement, the peace deal signed on 10th April 1998, ends on 29th March 2019, not even reaching its 21st birthday: because the Good Friday Agreement was and is fundamentally dependent on the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland both being part of the EU.
The UK government, the Irish government, the EU government, are all sincerely committed to finding a peaceful democratic solution to keep the peace. But no solution is likely to be as effective as the Good Friday Agreement was and is: and Brexit ends it. (To any Brexiteers reading this and in disagreement with me, read the text, show me where I’m wrong.)
I have tried to discuss these issues individually with Brexiteers, and even talked about them briefly on Radio 5 Live, but have always been accused of fearmongering or buying into EU propaganda.
In fact, I would suppose that there are other negative consequences of hard Brexit that haven’t occurred to me yet. The above reckoning is only the obvious and unavoidable, based on information publicly available to the lightest of Internet researches.
Theresa May seemed in September to have dropped her mantra of “No deal better than bad deal” – but assuming that she has finally realised that telling EU-27 the UK will leave without a deal is not a successful negotiating tactic, she still has to deal with members of her own party, and Leave voters, who either do not realise how bad no-deal Brexit would be, or who have talked themselves into believing that a period of extreme suffering where the weakest die would be good for the UK.