Brexit to Nowhere: The foreign policy consequences of “Out”

Eight things “Out” campaigners won’t tell you about the foreign policy implications of Brexit

Also available in

“Out” campaigners paint a beguiling picture of how life would be for Britain outside the EU. ‘Unshackled from the EU corpse’, the UK would be free once more to venture round the globe, in a new Elizabethan age of national pride and prosperity. Alas, this is fantasy. Here are some of the hard realities the Europhobes prefer to gloss over.

1. No more United Kingdom.
Scots are determined to stay in the EU. If Brexit happens, they will vote for independence. And we should brace for the return of violence in Northern Ireland: the peace process has depended on London and Dublin working together as partners within the EU.

2. No amicable divorce.
Brexit would do great damage to the rest of the EU, particularly with the boost it would give to forces of nationalism and intolerance across the continent. Britain's former partners would not thank them for it. What incentive then for Spain to dial down its campaign to recover Gibraltar? Or for France to continue to allow Britain to operate its border controls on their territory?

3. No special deal on trade.
No non-EU country gets full access to the single market without accepting a) freedom of movement (all those Polish plumbers) and b) all relevant EU regulations (but with no say in their drafting). Why should they cut Britain a better deal if it left – would you? Yes, around 10 percent of Europe's exports come to Britain, but 45 percent of Britain's go to them.

4. No El Dorado elsewhere.
The EU does not stop Britain trading wherever we want. But the British economy needs trade that is fair as well as free; as Britain's steel industry has recently discovered. Nowadays, the right freedoms and protections (eg to stop the other guy pirating our technology, or blocking access to the best bits of his market) are secured through detailed agreements and the EU, as the world's biggest trading bloc, is leading the way, with deals in place or in the works with two-thirds of the world's countries. Next up is the EU/US mega-deal; and the US have just made clear they will not bother with a side-deal with Britain if it leaves the EU.

5. No Commonwealth alternative.
“Outs” fantasise about a global Anglophone community waiting to welcome us back like the prodigal son. But whenever Brits say this, there is never an answering echo. The old empire countries have moved on – not always with happy memories. India is buying its new warplanes from France, not us.

6. No more ‘special relationship’.
Britain has been too ready to take orders from Washington in recent years. But a close relationship with the world’s biggest super-power is still a big asset. Yet President Obama has spelled it out: the US will be much less interested in the UK if it quits Europe. And it is no use banging the NATO drum instead: it is EU sanctions that Putin takes notice of, not NATO tanks.

7. No protection from the refugee crisis.
“Outs” have been so vocal about controlling British borders that is a surprise to realise that Brexit would make last summer’s cross-Channel travel disruption worse, not better. Imagine having to pull border controls back from Calais to Dover – and then having to quarantine every unchecked ferry and Eurostar on arrival. And no longer being able to send non-European migrants back to where they first entered the EU, as can be done now.

8. No real sovereignty.
“Outs” also bang on about recovering the sovereignty of Parliament, stolen by faceless European judges and bureaucrats. And, yes, the EU has made Britain clean up its beaches, and allows junior doctors to get some sleep. But real sovereignty is not about the Englishman’s historic right to swim in sewage if he wants to, or be treated by an exhausted medic. It is about remaining, as far as any country can in this globalised world, master of its own destiny. If we don’t want a world run from Beijing or Moscow, Britain needs to bulk up, and stand with European partners.

Of course the EU needs reform. It is despondent, going through a difficult period. And the single change that would do it most good, the biggest possible shot in the arm, would be leadership from a confident and re-engaged Britain following a vote to stay in.

Read the full report Brexit to nowhere: The foreign policy consequences of “Out”

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.