I have spent a lot of time in the UK as a civil servant, and later in Brussels representing Northern Ireland on the Economic and Social Committee preparing and implementing laws, rules and regulations.
I know what a very intensive, complex and time-consuming exercise this can be with reams of provisions often taking many months to complete.
That is why, when I first heard about the EU referendum, I thought ‘How will we be able to manage the enormous task of extracting ourselves from 40 years of close involvement with Brussels Directives? How will we replace the huge raft of legislation quickly enough to avoid doing very serious damage to our economy and security? And how can such a pressured and confused situation lead to better deals than those we already have?’
Leave campaigners claim that the task of filling the massive regulatory black hole created by the UK withdrawal could all be completed inside two years. I would seriously doubt this. It seems to me that to effect a changeover with infinite care and attention would involve a huge amount of time and effort, as well as being extremely demanding and costly on human resources.
If we only look at trade deals, the task of trying to match what we currently have would certainly take years, leaving us in the economic wilderness in the meantime. Let’s not forget that the EU is the world’s biggest trading area, allowing it to negotiate with the likes of China and America on an equal – if not more powerful – footing. The UK alone would find itself no longer at the top table and instead having to beg for trade deals with much more powerful players who will know we are racing against the clock to get a deal done. Any businessperson will know this is not a persuasive negotiating position.
The former head of the UK Civil Service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, along with a Committee of the House of Lords and President Obama have all stated very clearly that the UK would find itself wrapped in a tangle of protracted negotiations.
Indeed it has been suggested that the time taken to effect the change brought about by the UK exit would likely be nearer 10 years than two.
The Canada-EU trade agreement has taken seven years of negotiation so far and still has to be ratified by the European Council and Parliament. Imagine we find ourselves in Canada’s position, negotiating with the EU from the outside. Canada has to accept the rules that govern the EU market, with no say whatsoever on their detail. With car manufacturing, for example, in order to access the Single Market,
Canadian exporters must ensure their cars meet EU standards that they have had no role in setting. It’s also worth pointing out that the Canadian deal doesn’t fully include financial services, an area that’s vital to the UK and Northern Ireland’s growth and expertise.
And how do our traders and producers, on whom our prosperity depends, continue to make headway in a world where a whole raft of unpredictable trading agreements with other states and trading blocks have still to be set up?
It is difficult to be optimistic in such circumstances.
As ever, though some may be tempted by big promises of change and prosperity, the devil is very much in the detail.