It’s easy, in principle, to force a ‘hard’, unilateral Brexit by repealing the 1972 European Communities Act, as right-wing Conservatives have suggested.
This would restore Britain’s formal sovereignty, but leave us without a framework for multilateral co-operation either with our continental neighbours or with other countries. The ‘soft’ alternative Brexit that Theresa May favours requires lengthy negotiations both with the remaining 27 EU members, and with our other major trading partners, in which we will have to offer concessions rather than simply slamming down our demands.
The idea that we could go back to the trading world of 40 years ago, with British sovereignty reasserted against European regulation, was one of the many illusions peddled in the referendum campaign.
In the 1970s, Britain was an industrial country, with most of its major companies British-owned. Now most of our big companies are foreign-owned, as well as many of our gas, electricity and water suppliers – a shift that began with the deregulation and privatisation drives of the Thatcher government.
Leave campaigners have forgotten the good reasons that led Margaret Thatcher to push for the creation of the European Single Market; she understood that a wider framework of standards and regulations, which the UK played an active role in shaping, was a necessary response to economic and technological change. Manufacturing now sees final assembly from specialised parts delivered across borders, and losing their slot in Europe-wide supply chains would cost British companies dear.
Sovereignty and free trade contradict each other. With Liam Fox travelling to Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf touting for trade concessions from their authoritarian monarchies, and Mrs May accepting that the Hinkley Point nuclear project must go ahead to avoid damaging our relations with China, we are in danger of finding that independence from Europe has left us more dependent on much less attractive partners.
The direct costs of leaving are also beginning to emerge. Two new ministries have been created, with large numbers of officials recruited. Embassies across Europe need additional staff to manage bilateral relations. British tourists will lose rights to European Health cards, so paying more for travel insurance, and may face charges for visas. British universities, which have built up a global reputation through cross-European partnerships, will lose the common funding that has underwritten them and the multi-national teams that staff them.
The English-speaking countries that Eurosceptics hoped would welcome us with open arms have warned our Government that their interests are not the same as ours. Hundreds of Canadian trade lawyers and officials have spent several years negotiating a complex trade deal with the EU. They see no reason to offer the UK whatever we ask for; though they are interested in the skilled Poles, Portuguese and Lithuanians now thinking of leaving Britain.
Australians want concessions on agriculture, including lamb, in return for a trade deal – not what Yorkshire farmers will want to hear. The Japanese government has sent a tough letter setting out expectations for a close association with the EU if Japanese companies are to continue to invest in Britain.
Then there is EU co-operation in policing and counter-terrorism which Mrs May, as Home Secretary, valued. And there’s co-operation in foreign policy and defence – with the UK commanding an EU naval anti-piracy mission off Somalia and contributing two ships to a migrant control mission in the Mediterranean.
Staying in activities like these while opting out of others we care about less will not be easy; and, of course, we will be expected to pay our share of the common costs.
None of these complications were spelled out in the breezy confidence of the Leave campaign. Nigel Farage told us that June 23 would be Britain’s ‘Independence Day’ – by now we should be free. Instead, across Whitehall people are discovering how far the implications of Brexit affect energy strategy, environmental policy, transport regulation, intelligence cooperation, efforts to persuade multi-nationals to pay tax, even to control our own borders – because effective control of busy borders needs close co-operation with those on the other side.
It will take another three to five months before the Government is ready to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty and open formal negotiations, and then another two to three years before the pattern of our future relationship with our closest neighbours and trading partners becomes clear. This wasn’t what Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson told you would happen. But how many of those who voted Leave really believed it would be as simple as they said?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem peer and former minister.