After three years of flux, faffing and floundering, it is a frightening reality that we may be soon leaving the EU without a deal. The precise long-term consequences of this will, of course, take some time to materialise, but the recent publication of the Yellowhammer documents has made it clear that a ‘no deal’ outcome would produce significant challenges in numerous policy areas.
Challenges to UK political and economic stability are the most pressing and salient issues relating to a ‘no deal’ Brexit, in both the short and longer term. With regard to the economy, reverting to World Trade Organisation rules when trading with the EU would require all UK-EU trade to be immediately subjected to tariffs. Whilst some of the EU’s international trading tariffs are relatively low, British cars would be subject to a 10% tax increase in EU markets, whilst additional taxes on dairy products would be 35%. Under the 2017 WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, the EU is obliged to treat the UK “fairly” regarding tariff imposition. Fairly does not mean special treatment, however, and outside of the Union the UK would be subject to the same tariffs and border checks as any third country.
Although a ‘no deal’ exit would not leave the EU financially unscathed, it is in a stronger position to withstand the sizeable, concomitant economic and logistical disruption. Recognising that the UK is the bloc’s largest bilateral trading partner, the EU institutions and each of its member states have produced detailed and efficient plans for it ‘no deal’ should become a reality. The French government, for example, have already promised to train seven hundred customs officials by 2020, specifically for its port cities, and has committed to spending €50m on expanding its port infrastructure to ensure that any new customs process can run as smoothly as possible. Even without these programmes, the EU has a far larger economic cushion to fall back on, with no change to either its external trade agreements with countries such as China and the USA or the functioning of its internal market.
‘No deal’ also risks further domestic political turmoil, including threats to the UK’s domestic union. Irrespective of how the UK leaves the EU, the divide between nations on Brexit preferences and stances has widened since the referendum. The fact that some campaigned against Scottish independence because it would result in a loss of EU membership – Scotland, following independence, would have had to leave the EU and apply again as a separate state – is now problematised by Brexit. A ‘no deal’ outcome would also necessitate a major reassessment of the competencies assigned by devolution, as some, such as agricultural and environmental regulation, were largely regulated by EU law. This reassessment has the potential to threaten the union, should the powers — which were originally assigned to devolved powers, but coordinated by EU legislation — be reclaimed by Westminster.
Moreover, the challenge of ensuring peace in Northern Ireland in the wake of a Brexit is a concern that people are not taking seriously enough. A ‘no deal’ exit has the potential to force the Government to choose between keeping the union together and realising Brexit at the expense of conflict. The ‘Irish question’ may even be back on the table.
Over the past three years, we have seen the degeneration of civilised politics in the UK, with significant intransigence in the House of Commons on Brexit, and deepening divides across society. The Conservative Party’s current approach is counter-productive, and is disruptive of the little progress that had been made by Theresa May. Labour has decisively failed to take a stance on Brexit, and has instead vacillated between its commitment to its voting base and its own internal biases, divisions and political ambitions. Parliament has had numerous opportunities to avoid ‘no deal’. Instead it has chosen to vote down every alternative option presented whilst still crying wolf.
It is clear that Brexit is an era-defining event that will change the face of British and European politics and society. It is also increasingly clear that there will be few winners should ‘no deal’ become a reality. For these reasons, it is necessary that the Government and the UK’s other elected representatives do all that they can both to prevent a ‘no deal’ and to mitigate against the worst of what such a scenario would present, should it become a reality.
Maia Miller-Lewis is a third year Politics and International Relations student at the University of Bristol.