What’s at Stake in Britain’s EU Referendum?

On Thursday, Britain will vote on whether or not to leave the European Union (EU). As things stand, the race is too close to call: a week ago, “Leave” were surging in the polls; this week, things have swung back towards “Remain.” But neither side has managed to build a lead beyond the pollsters’ margin for error, and veteran political campaigners suggest it will all come down to turnout. So what is really at stake as Britons submit their “Brexit” ballot papers?

To me, the case for Brexit is rooted in the idea of self-government, and the democratic accountability that goes along with that. The question facing British voters is, fundamentally, whether their parliament should be sovereign and their laws supreme, or whether such powers should continue to be pooled at the European level.

In other words, this is a constitutional referendum. It is not a choice between rival political platforms, or between rival sets of politicians; nor, indeed, does the result of the referendum have any immediate legal consequences. Rather, this is an opportunity for British voters to decide how they should be governed in future. Once the result is in, it will be up to the British government, and to parliament, to determine policy going forward.

This point is important, because it undercuts a lot of the fears people have about Britain leaving the EU. There is no denying, for example, that the Leave campaign has taken some unsavory positions on immigration, and promised unrealistic “bread and circuses” once Britain leaves the EU. But Leave are, emphatically, not a government in waiting.

Then there’s the government-backed Remain campaign, who have scarcely let an opportunity to scaremonger about the economic consequences of Brexit pass them by. From their increasingly shrill and outlandish claims, you would think that a vote for Brexit meant surrounding Britain with naval mines and never letting anything—whether goods, services, capital, or people—cross the border again.

That scenario is, of course, absurd. In reality, post-Brexit Britain is likely to rejoin the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), which it left in 1973 to become an EEC member, alongside Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein. These countries participate fully in the EU’s single market, without being subject to its political union. They are also free from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (which horribly distorts produce markets), its Common Fisheries Policy (which has helped to deplete European fish stocks), and its Common External Tariff (which prevents EU member states from trading freely with other countries).

The arguments against this “Norway option,” as it is often called, are well-rehearsed, but mostly without foundation. Yes, EFTA members have to contribute to the EU budget—but they do so at a far lower per capita level than full EU members. And yes, EFTA members have to adhere to a lot of EU regulation—but, again, far less than full EU members. More to the point, EFTA members have independent representation on the global trade and standards bodies that inspire most of this regulation in the first place, while EU member states are represented collectively by the European Commission. As a result, EFTA countries arguably have more say over the actual content of EU regulation than individual EU member states do.

There is, inevitably, a flaw in this plan: EFTA members, whether through parallel membership of the European Economic Area, or through a series of bilateral agreements with the EU (as is the case for Switzerland), must accept the free movement of people within the area covered by the European single market. And given how much Britain’s Leave campaign has focused on reducing immigration, that might prove a political tough sell—despite clear evidence that EU migrants are a boon to the British economy.

On the other hand, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Adam Smith Institute suggests that a majority of the British public would back EFTA membership in the event of a Brexit vote. The House of Commons also contains a clear majority in favor of continued membership of the European single market. So I am optimistic that British intransigence on European migration would not scupper a fully-fledged trading relationship in the event of Brexit.

But perhaps this all begs a question: Why am I willing to take the risk, however slight it may be, that Brexit will damage Britain’s trading relationship with Europe? My response comes down to two things. First, even if Britain were denied continued access to the single market, I am certain that a comprehensive UK–EU trade agreement could nevertheless be reached. An independent Britain would, after all, instantly become the EU’s single largest export market.

Such negotiations might prove difficult; their outcome would probably provide less access to the EU market for British agriculture and services; and British banks might lose the right to do business in other EU countries without establishing separate operations there. These would be real losses, to be sure. But they could easily be outweighed by freer trade with the rest of the world. Britain, as it happens, already sends more exports out of the EU than it does into it.

It is also worth highlighting research by Economists for Brexit, whose modelling suggests that a post-Brexit policy of unilateral free trade within the WTO framework could deliver substantial benefits over the status quo, without requiring any bilateral trade agreements whatsoever. That might not be a politically palatable option, but it does suggest that the single market need not necessarily be the be-all and end-all of Britain’s trade policy.

Second—and finally—let me come back to where I started: this referendum isn’t ultimately about trade, or immigration, or even about economics in general; it is about whether Britain should govern itself, or whether it should cede an ever-increasing portion of that responsibility to the institutions of the European Union. There are principled arguments on both sides of that question but, for me, the answer is clear.

Britain’s common law tradition, which asserts our freedoms from government, and which assumes we are at liberty to do anything that isn’t specifically prohibited, sits uneasily alongside the continent’s Napoleonic approach, which tends to create positive entitlements that can be enforced against government, and which often assumes that anything the law does not explicitly provide for must be illegal. Britain’s majoritarian political culture, which prizes above all the ability of voters to get rid of one government and replace it with another, does not chime harmoniously with Europe’s permanent coalitions, technocratic governments, and late-night deals made in proverbial, smoke-filled rooms. Nor does Britain’s laissez-faire, internationalist view of economics marry well with the EU’s dirigiste, fortress-Europe mentality.

In the end, that’s why I believe Britain should be free to rule itself, while also seeking the most open possible trading arrangements with both its European neighbors and the rest of the world. A Brexit vote alone, it must be stressed, will not make those things happen. But it would mark the beginning of a process that could eventually prove very beneficial for Britain—just so long as the right policies are pursued in its aftermath.