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‘It will be much easier without the British’

The year 2020 should finally be Brexit year. The United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union on 31 January, at midnight Dutch time. Legal scholar Joris Larik from Leiden University College The Hague explains why he is not advocating remain.

This article previously appeared in Leidraad, our alumni magazine. The full magazine [in Dutch] is available online.

What scenarios can you see at the moment?

‘Since the Tory election victory, two probable scenarios remain. The first is the amended withdrawal agreement, or Boris Johnson’s deal. The second is a no-deal Brexit. Two other options have now become much less likely. Scenario three is remaining in the EU and scenario four is a kind of customs union between the UK and the EU. The latter was the preferred choice of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.’

As an academic you should remain neutral, but do you secretly have a preference?

‘Even before the elections, a customs union seemed very tricky to me because that doesn’t leave the UK free to negotiate its own trade agreements – one of the big promises of the Brexiteers. The UK would also lose its say in the EU. There is a comparable partial customs union between the EU and Turkey, but neither side is completely satisfied with that. For all arrangements with the EU, from the European Economic Area (Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland) to bilateral agreements, the following applies: the more access to the internal market, the more European legislation you have to implement. You can’t expect unhindered access and at the same time the freedom to develop your own policy. You can’t have your cake and eat it, as the Brits say. To me, the Johnson deal, with a transition period to soften the economic blow and guarantees that there won’t be a border right across Ireland, doesn’t look like such a bad option.’

‘If the United Kingdom withdraws completely, the EU will be much easier’

I’ve noticed that you’re not advocating the remain option.

‘The UK staying in the EU won’t be a magic solution to the current tensions. The British will still claim special status. Euroscepticism won’t disappear. That began with the rebate, the reduction on the EU contribution that Thatcher negotiated. After the Maastricht Treaty, you saw the British choose an opt-out in many areas, such as the euro and police cooperation. If they withdraw completely, it will make the EU much easier, and I would venture to predict that it will be much more likely that all the member states are in the euro and the Schengen Area in ten years’ time. And Brussels will be able to focus on more important matters, such as climate change or the migration problem.’

You expect Brexit will happen in the end?

‘I think it will end up with something like the Johnson deal. The bandwidth that the European member states gave their negotiator Michel Barnier is limited. That’s why there’s little difference between the Johnson deal and May’s one before it. It’s just that in economic terms Northern Ireland will, in effect, continue to be part of the EU. Incidentally, that was the original proposal from Brussels – it was May herself who wanted the backstop to apply to the entire UK because she didn’t want the Northern Irish to form an exception.’

Have there been times when you experienced Brexit fatigue in the last three years?

‘Definitely! Particularly during the interminable soap opera in Parliament. That’s why I understood Johnson’s motto “Get Brexit done”. That will free up a great deal of energy. The question is only to what extent he can live up to the promise of “Global Britain,” of a new flood of trade agreements once they are liberated from the “dead” EU – unshackled from the corpse. They talk about their special relationship with the US. The Americans will undoubtedly roll out the red carpet, but they also know that the British – with a market that is about a sixth of that of the EU – are in a relatively weak position. And American interests come first for President Trump: America First. Then, for instance, you have to admit the controversial “chlorinated chicken” to your market.’

And the cherished hope of a ‘British Empire 2.0’?

‘That’s sensitive because of the connotations of the colonial period. It’s not something the Commonwealth countries are keen on, although you can’t rule out that the British, with their highly skilled civil service, will manage to conclude a number of good trade agreements.’

But in general do you expect the UK to lose out?

‘That is at least the argument of pro-European politicians such as Guy Verhofstadt. Unity makes you stronger: you can only face up to superpowers such as the US and China if you work together. A large European market gives you more power at the negotiating table. You see that, for instance, in Canada’s free-trade agreement, under which European companies can respond to public tenders. That was a hard pill to swallow for Canada, when businesses there are not always allowed to do so outside their own province even.’

‘Brexit has become a kind of intra-European navel-gazing’

You have also conducted research in the US. How do they view Brexit there?

The Americans have now lost track of the European discussion about it. They prefer to talk about China, cyber-attacks or Iran. Brexit has now become a discipline of its own, a kind of intra-European navel-gazing.

What do you see as the value of your research for society?

‘I still remember Michael Gove [leading Brexiteer, PW] saying in 2016 that people were fed up with experts. Well, I’ve never been busier. To study such agreements, you need legal scholars who can communicate with political scientists, economists and policymakers. Iceland is used as an example of a small country that has been able to reach a trade agreement with a heavyweight such as China. For China, however, trade with Iceland is insignificant. This raises questions about the growing dependence of Iceland on China, Chinese geopolitical ambitions in the Arctic region and the future of Iceland within the European Economic Area. This should give the UK cause for thought.’

Text: Peter Wierenga
Photos: Taco van der Eb
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