On Thursday, the British government will begin to publish eighty-four guidelines, for civilians and businesses alike, setting out what will happen if the negotiations over the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union end in failure. Since the vote to leave the E.U., in 2016, the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit has always been the nightmare scenario. Forty-six years of deep economic, political, and social coöperation would end—papers flying, the door slamming, lights out—at midnight, Brussels time, on March 30, 2019. Theoretically possible? Sure. But not in the real world. Last summer, shortly after the talks began, Britain’s international-trade secretary, Liam Fox, a leading Brexiteer, said that he believed that a future trade deal with the E.U. “should be one of the easiest in human history” to strike, given how integrated the economies and legal systems already are. It hasn’t turned out that way. The current deadline to settle Britain’s new relationship with the bloc is now just more than two months away, but the negotiations are doubly stalled: by sticking points between the U.K. and the E.U.; and by sticking points between the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the rest of the warring Conservative Party, which may undermine any attempt to get a deal signed off in Westminster. Last week, the Latvian foreign minister and the Danish finance minister put the chances of the talks collapsing at fifty per cent. Britain’s new foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said that such an outcome would be a “geo-strategic mistake.” This week, we are getting the survival plans.
It’s unclear what releasing the “no deal” documents is intended to achieve. Apparently, it is an axiom of any successful negotiation that, if you want the other side to take you seriously, you must be willing to walk away from the table. But the Brexit process has never resembled other negotiations. It is not like buying a house, or ending a war, in which both sides stand to suffer more or less equally if the thing falls through. In the case of Brexit, the odds have only ever been stacked one way: the E.U. accounts for forty-five per cent of the U.K.’s exports; the U.K. accounts for about eighteen per cent of the E.U.’s. One country is going its own way; twenty-seven are sticking to the program. It’s true that specific sectors in specific countries, such as the Irish dairy industry, would be devastated by a chaotic Brexit, but the impact would be nothing compared with the shock to British life.
If the U.K. and the E.U. can’t agree, then economic relations between the two sides will default to the rules of the World Trade Organization. Britain will become just another “third country” in its dealings with the bloc, subject to tariffs and border checks. The W.T.O. regime hardly covers services, which make up eighty per cent of the British economy. Meanwhile, four decades of intricately devised shared regulations—for drugs, citizens’ rights, security, food standards, the Internet—will cease to function from one minute to the next. A British airline will not be licensed to land a plane in Paris. An insurance contract underwritten in London may no longer be valid in Greece. Three million E.U. citizens living in Britain would have every cause to panic. Food prices will rise by an estimated twenty per cent, and financial markets will turn red, as the U.K. immediately tumbles out of sixty-three trade agreements that the E.U. holds with other nations around the world. Earlier in the summer, the Prime Minister’s office was forced to deny that, in the event of no deal, the Army would be deployed. Last week, a leaked letter from NHS Providers, which represents ambulance services and hospitals, warned that a collapse in the talks could undermine “the entire supply chain of pharmaceuticals” in Britain. “Public health and disease control co-ordination could suffer.”
Extreme Brexiteers, like the Conservative M.P. Jacob Rees-Mogg, have always given the impression that they rather like the sound of no deal. “I think we are heading to W.T.O. and I think W.T.O. is nothing to be frightened of,” Rees-Mogg said last month. An unruly Brexit has the whiff of creative destruction, or Year Zero, but the truth is more banal than that. There would be plenty of laws and rules governing Britain’s third-country relationship with the E.U.; they would just be terribly disadvantageous, adding up to an unspeakable act of national self-harm. No deal is simply the worst deal, which makes the purpose of sharing the eighty-four contingency plans all the more obscure. According to reports in the British media, the documents will be brief—between two and five pages long—and share the same format, as they address the impact of no deal in various sectors of the economy and public life, such as security and migration. It is hard to believe that anyone will find them reassuring. My hunch is that people won’t believe them at all. That is because, as has often been the case during the Brexit negotiations, the E.U. has got there first. On July 19th, the bloc published sixty-eight “preparedness notices” for no deal. The documents (short, technical, sharing the same format) calmly set out the disruptive consequences for everything from seafarers’ qualifications to mineral water, energy trading, and the collection of value-added taxes. As far as I can tell, they had no impact on the talks or public sentiment whatsoever. You read them and you can’t believe that they will come to pass. And that seems to be a mode of thinking that recurs in these times of Trump and Brexit and dysfunction in our democracies. We are always warned. We see the calamity coming. But we do not believe it until it is here.
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