The path from now until referendum day on 23 June will be dominated by what is the most important debate our country has faced in a generation. There will undoubtedly be a fair amount of emotive rhetoric, and quite rightly so. But it is equally important that the conversation be anchored in rational argument: let’s hope that we can stick to the facts, and keep the fiction to a minimum.
It is in this spirit of objectivity that I offer three arguments which serve to dismantle a view that lies at the heart of the Leave campaigns: namely that the government would be able to secure a good exit deal (aka a “Soft Brexit”) if the British people were to vote for the UK to leave the EU.
First, as the Prime Minister has made clear, the nuts and bolts of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty spell disaster for any member state wishing to leave the EU. Article 50 outlines the process by which a member state would leave the EU and, whether you are pro-EU, anti-EU or undecided, you would do well to read it and reflect on it before you cast your vote.
The key tenets of Article 50 are:
1. Once a member state gives notice that it intends to leave the EU, then that member state is immediately excluded from both the European Council and the Council of Ministers.
2. Negotiations are allowed to continue for a period of two years, from the date of the initial notification. Once this period has expired the departing member state must accept the terms of the exit deal, as they stand at that point in time.
Simply put, Article 50 loads the dice firmly in favour of the 27 continuing member states, as the departing country is not even at the table when the terms of departure are being negotiated. Call me old fashioned, but if I were trying to negotiate my exit from a complex and deeply inter-twined 43 year relationship, then I’d probably want to at least be in the room when those negotiations were taking place.
The two year guillotine further strengthens the hand of the remaining 27. They won’t feel any pressure to bend over backwards for the Brits, because we’ll be the ones who need the deal far more than they do. We will therefore find ourselves in a race against time, and will be obliged to settle for whatever is on the table once the clock stops ticking.
And as the Prime Minister has also made clear, the idea that we could use Brexit as leverage to re-enter on new terms would be like using divorce as the starting point for renewing your vows. It is pure Brexiteer fantasy – both bizarre and dangerous.
Second, it’s clear that the remaining 27 member states will be intent on averting a domino effect – they won’t be minded to make life easy for the British negotiators. And why should they be? Sure, Britain is an important trading partner, but the twin political imperatives of holding the EU together and keeping Euroscepticism at bay will surely trump any thoughts about accommodating the demands of that awkward bunch from across the Channel.
Third, consider the role that domestic UK politics would play as the backdrop to the Brexit negotiations. David Cameron would almost certainly have to resign if Britain votes to leave, while George Osborne’s leadership ambitions would also be shot to pieces and his resignation from the Cabinet would probably follow in short order.
This matters, because it means that the only credible candidates for the Conservative Party leadership would be those who had campaigned to leave.
So, let’s get this straight: the government would be seeking to unpick the UK’s most important international relationship while embroiled in a chaotic leadership contest that would be bound to lead to the election of a Brexiteer.
And it would be attempting to do so while operating within the Article 50 process that is specifically designed to make exit as difficult as possible for the departing member state.
In that case, here’s the question that should probably be on the ballot paper on 23 June: would you trust a chaotic government that is openly hostile to the EU to engage with that organisation in such a way as to secure a deal that will protect the prosperity, security and influence of your country?
For this would be the truth of Brexit negotiations: our country shut out of the room, forced to accept terms from a Council fearful of contagion, and the whole sorry mess overseen by an unstable and divided Tory Party.
I want the Remain campaign to be driven by an upbeat, optimistic and patriotic vision of Britain’s future in a dynamic, reforming, and democratic EU. But it’s also vital that the British people have a full, unvarnished understanding of the truth behind the case that the Leave campaigns are making.
Take a cursory glance at Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty; make a common sense assessment of the likely mind-set of the other 27 member states; think about the probable state of the Conservative Party in the wake of a vote to leave, and you are simply bound to conclude that there can be no such thing as a Soft Brexit.