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The right arguments against No-deal
19 Mar, 2019

Long term relationship damage and democratic legitimacy

London4Europe Committee member and former HM Treasury senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes that if we wish No-Deal to not be on the ballot paper we need to persuade Leavers away from it. Scare stories don’t work. It’s about relationships.


Most Leavers want No-Deal

We have to recognise that for about eight million people No-deal is the preferred option (only a small minority believe it means Remain). This is in spite of a No-Deal Brexit not being espoused during the referendum campaign – voters were repeatedly told leaving the EU would be easy and painless (e.g. trade deals would be the easiest to secure in history).

The essence of No-deal is that we do not sign up to the withdrawal agreement which covers only:


If we do not want No-Deal on the ballot paper we have to persuade Leavers away from it

It is hard to see how a referendum could have legitimacy if the preferred option of Leave campaigners is not on the ballot paper. It would be like making the choice Deal or Norway? and telling Remainers that was near enough to what they wanted.

One can solve the technical problems of a three-choice referendum by voting in two stages.

But many see No-deal as too deeply irresponsible an option to even put before the people.

If we do not want it on the ballot paper we have to persuade Leavers so that it is no longer desired by large numbers of people.


Our arguments so far have failed

First step for success: don’t focus excessively on Week 1 horror stories, even if the Government and its studies make the case for us. Few believe them. They are seen as Project Fear Mark V: overly pessimistic or deliberate scare-mongering.

Anyway they would be short term.

Moreover, our rubbishing of the Government’s deal has helped to drive Leavers to No-deal. At some point we need to say: “This is the best Brexit available within the Government". We of course will think it is far worse than Remain.


There is no such thing as a “Managed No-Deal”

This is where we do have to argue a point. Yes there will be some small deals. The EU has already announced some. Aeroplanes will fly, lorries will cross the border. But those deals cover a tiny part of what is needed for a modern economy and society, are short term, and have been set up where the EU wants them (or at least wants to avoid blame). The EU will do the bare minimum, no more.


The real harm: a bad relationship with the EU

Brexit means leaving the club. A No-deal Brexit means walking out of the clubhouse and throwing a brick through the window.

So the first harm is that we will have a bad relationship with the EU.

Because people here do not understand that the EU is first of all a union for peace they underestimate the harm we do by reneging on the Irish backstop. The past rôle of the EU in helping to preserve peace and the agreement to the backstop are central to the EU’s rôle and self-image. Moreover, the EU is a club of small states. Solidarity with Ireland against a non-member is part of its DNA. For sure, No-deal hands the problem of the Irish border to the EU and Ireland; they will not thank us for that.

No-one likes someone who bilks on their bills. And that is what the £39bn payment is: money that we have already promised to pay into the budget (apart from small costs caused by Brexit, such as the costs of relocating EU agencies).

Even a unilateral offer on citizens’ rights will only partly mitigate the harm.

It is really hard to see that the EU would negotiate a transition period or an FTA or any sort of deep friendship and co-operation agreement with the UK until we had sorted out the ground covered by the Withdrawal Agreement. So No-deal might mean the-deal-after-all. Or it might mean a lengthy period of bad and distant relations.

It is delusional to think that it does not matter whether we get on well with the EU, that we can carry on as before no matter what. It is not just that WTO terms offer much less protection than some people think. It is that all the human factors that make up a relationship – trading or otherwise – will be set to red. Our relationship with the EU goes so much wider than trade: for example a distant relationship puts our security at risk.


The real harm Part II: a bad relationship with every other country

Other countries will not negotiate with us on trade until they know what our trading relationship with EU is – unless they think they can impose their terms and so prevent us having an FTA with the EU. That is the real rôle of chlorinated chicken.

Nor will other countries negotiate with us if our key selling point is that we reneged on our debts and acted with hostility towards our key neighbours. Why would they trust us to behave well with them?

Or they would see us as desperate for a deal, any deal. They would then be in a position to impose terms on us.


The real harm Part III: our own morals

But what else does a No-deal Brexit tell us? That we are the sort of people who reject any sort of friendship with our nearest neighbours, our security partners, our friends. That we carelessly jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland.

Is that who we wish to be?



If we do not wish to have No-deal on the ballot paper we have to persuade Leavers away from it. We have to argue on the basis of the harm we do ourselves – and others – in the form of bad long-term relationships with our closest neighbours and partners and as a result other countries. We also have to question whether there was any mandate for a No Deal Brexit in the first place.





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