Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Political and Legal Consequences of a Brexit

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On the 23rd of June 2016 Britain will head to the polls to decide whether it should remain as a part of the EU. The announcement of this important referendum comes on the heels of David Cameron’s trip to Brussels – a last ditch effort by the British PM to negotiate a deal for Britain’s continued EU membership.

Britain has always had a somewhat casual approach to its membership in the EU. The Treaty of Lisbon, signed in 2007, included a number of opt-out clauses for use by member states. Among these clauses is the opt-out for moving to the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), essentially meaning the UK did not have to adopt that pesky Euro, but rather, retained the glorious tradition of the British pound. In 2003 Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, made a recommendation that it was ‘not the right time’ to adopt the Euro, given the economic risks, a position that does not seem to have changed.

National interest is, above all, what this debate comes down to. Media hyperbole has allowed public perception of the EU to reach unbelievable levels of unpopularity. Everyone seems to have an opinion- last week, the British public was faced with the headline: ‘Rolling Stone Mick Jagger says Brexit might be good for us’ – you know, Mick Jagger, that world renowned foreign policy expert. David Cameron has called a referendum at a time when the EU is being blamed for everything from Greece’s economic meltdown, to the migrant crisis, to the struggles of the NHS. One of the biggest drawcard arguments for the ‘leave’ campaign is that the European Union laws have direct effect on UK laws- fuelling the notion that the EU meddles too often in the domestic legislative sphere. Evidence of such interference includes the ‘bendy banana law’ (Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94) which attempted to standardise the acceptable curve of bananas and admittedly, probably went a bit too far, which is probably why the directive was scrapped. But to take a step back from the extreme- the Council of Ministers, the main policy making branch of the EU, includes representatives from each member state so that they have input in deliberations before regulations are set. The national interests of the UK therefore are represented, but this must be tempered with the interests of 27 other members.

The EU certainly has its weaknesses; it is by no means a perfect system, but consider the struggles Britain would face should it decide it’s better to fly solo. There are over 40 years of British legal and economic history tied up in its participation in the EU. An exit would require extensive re-legislation of many of its key treaties and trade agreements in order to retain their effectiveness and disentangle the commitments of the UK from the EU.

From an economic point of view, a Brexit would mean the UK loses the benefits of multilateral agreements that were established by the EU. In order to remain competitive in an increasingly globalised world economy, Britain would need to re-negotiate its position within the European market and its partnerships outside of the EU by securing bilateral trade deals. And it would need to do it fast. With the increasing popularity of multilateral trade agreements effectively forming a ‘bloc’ of trading partners, Britain could be at somewhat of a disadvantage should they completely cut themselves off from the EU and pursue separate trade deals. The proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, between the EU and the US, highlights the trend towards multilateral economic agreements, and the UK could face serious barriers to its major trading partners if it leaves the negotiating table in favour of going it alone.

But of course, Britain is concentrating on the really important aspects of the Brexit debate, with many commentators lamenting the difficulties of getting European players to the Premier League if Britain in fact does exit the EU. The possibility of having to re-negotiate a myriad of trade deals? A mere complication. Loosing Dimitri Payet from West Ham’s midfield? A bloody tragedy.

Bethan Smillie holds a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts (major in Political Science and International Relations) from the University of Western Australia. Her particular areas of interest include international security issues and making dinner conversations more lively by injecting some good old fashioned political debate.

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