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Brexit (un)balance sheet shows cons far outweigh pros

by Anthony Cary | 02.07.2019

Former top UK diplomat Anthony Cary draws up a balance sheet of the likely pros and cons of Brexit. Three years on and it’s not looking very balanced.

The likely pros of continuing with Brexit:

  • Blue passports (though we are already free to have them, as members of the EU).
  • Cheaper property prices (though this is likely to advantage foreigners more than an impoverished UK population).
  • A bonanza for disaster capitalists and those determined to fend off EU legislation to clamp down on tax evasion.
  • Theoretical ability to exclude EU citizens from entering the UK in future (though we already have the ability to address voters’ concerns with EU immigration without leaving the bloc).
  • A United Ireland (possibly, medium term, though maybe not without bloodshed)
  • No EU membership fee (though this is about 0.5% of GDP, and dwarfed by the economic damage of leaving the EU).

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Now, the likely cons of continuing with Brexit. But first, the damage already sustained:

  • Loss of investment; weakness of the UK economy relative to the global trend; loss of EU regulatory agencies for medicines and banking; opportunity costs of repeatedly stockpiling for a no-deal Brexit.
  • Polarisation of the country.
  • Serious damage to the UK’s reputation for competence, stability and good sense.
  • Huge loss of influence already.
  • Loss of scientific research projects and contracts like Galileo.
  • Ongoing political paralysis: failure to address the UK’s many problems (from increasing regional disparities to funding of social care) while Brexit consumes all oxygen in Westminster.

Damage to come, if we proceed:

  • Much greater economic damage to come, short and medium term, if Brexit actually goes ahead, especially in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Further loss of investment, migration of head offices, breakdown of supply chains, loss of jobs etc. Potential threats to public order, etc.
  • No reason to expect any economic dividend in the long term, whether we end up as rule-takers in a US regulatory orbit or an EU one. 
  • Long, acrimonious negotiations for a new – necessarily inferior – relationship with the EU. (A free trade agreement makes sense between trade partners divided by tariffs, quotas and regulatory obstacles. For UK and EU it would be a “new obstacles to trade agreement”. Nor would it cover services.)
  • Obstacles to collaboration in scientific research, etc.
  • Weakening of the UK’s ability to strike advantageous trade deals with third countries, as (outside the EU) we offer so much less in reciprocal benefits. In general we can hope to piggy-back on EU deals, but third countries will exact a price for offering us that privilege.
  • Threat to the integrity of the UK, including a potential second Scottish independence referendum.
  • Threat to the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland
  • Further loss of the UK’s reputation as we squabble over our new relationship with the EU, on which negotiation has yet to begin.
  • Further loss of UK influence (and maybe a threat to our UN Security Council seat). The UK will no longer be a “player” on the big transnational issues like regulation of tech giants or climate emergency.
  • Loss of the UK’s ability to influence the environment in which it must make its way (i.e. “loss of control”)
  • Damage to the rules-based international order, including the EU. 
  • Vladimir Putin’s delight at western Europe’s discomfiture (plus Donald Trump’s delight at weakening of the EU, which he has previously called a “foe”)
  • Germany left uncomfortably dominant in the EU – which they do not want, preferring a Europeanised Germany to a Germanised Europe.
  • Loss of the UK as a champion of liberal market forces within the EU, with a greater tendency towards protectionism (now directed against the UK, as a “third country”).
  • Loss of freedom of movement, and UK citizens’ rights in Europe.
  • Further polarisation and breakdown of trust in democracy as all sides scream “betrayal”, and especially the hardest Brexiters, who will say: “This is not how it was meant to be, and the fault lies with fifth-column traitors, Remoaners, immigrants, vindictive Europeans, the Establishment / ”deep state”, lack of faith in unicorns, judges, mainstream media, Whitehall, politicians, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and/or Jeremy Hunt”.
  • The rise of Nigel Farage and ethno-nationalism, and the weakening of political centre ground.
  • Brexit emphatically not “resolved”. On the contrary, it will be the “end of the beginning” with years and years of this to come.

Anthony Cary served as a diplomat in Berlin, Kuala Lumpur, Washington DC, and latterly as British Ambassador to Sweden and High Commissioner to Canada. He was twice seconded to the European Commission. He is currently a Commonwealth Scholarship Commissioner and hon President of the Canada-UK Council.

The headline of this article was corrected shortly after publication to read “the cons far outweigh the pros” rather than the other way round. Apologies for any confusion!

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

12 Responses to “Brexit (un)balance sheet shows cons far outweigh pros”

  • I cannot see how blue British passports would be a Pro from Brexit.
    They will offer less freedoms and take away rights from British citizens, compared to existing EU passports.

  • Pathetic proof-reading. This is a gift to pro-Brexiteers. In fact, as the text of the article says, the Brexit cons far outweigh the pros.

  • Yes…it made me blink….especially as no one seems to be discussing any benefits/profit/ advantages of Brexit.
    In fact, they seem to be trying to revive the old war-spirit. We can do it, plucky little Britain, etc…..except this time it is us fighting us!

  • I agree with the above comments, and Cary’s analysis. But this stuff should all be presented in positive benefits for Remain, rather than the negative ‘project fear’ approach which failed in 2016. Marketing and Sales 101 courses ALWAYS taught to focus on your products strengths rather than your competitors weaknesses.

  • The truly sad thing is that the country is divided as bitterly as it was during the Civil War. I don’t see that changing for many years, whatever the outcome. True, we’re not actually trying to kill each other (yet), but if we leave and discover that never-never land is exactly that – a dream, there will be a great deal of dissatisfaction with our parliamentary representatives and much general resentment against anyone who dares to say “I told you so”. Similarly, if we DON’T leave (just the very faintest possibility), there will be even more dissatisfaction at having had Nirvana dashed from our lips, so to speak. There will be much complaining about “what might have been” but also, perhaps, a certain relief ? In either case, I very much doubt that there will be mobs on the street – the British are great at complaining but very rarely do they actually stir themselves like the French do.

  • I’d qualify that last bit – obviously a million demonstrators outside Parliament represents some extreme feeling but the demo was good natured. I’m referring to the sort of bad feeling that is associated with e.g. the miners strike.

  • For many in Scotland, Independence from an institutionally right-wing, nativist England is not a disadvantage so I’m not sure Mr Cary should put it in the “con” list. We believe we might do fine as a small EU member state, and look with envy at Ireland, Denmark etc. And yet most of us would also prefer that the rest of UK stays in the EU too and we campaign with you to make that happen.

  • Perhaps more people should read Fintan O’Toole’s book Heroic Failure. It deals with the emotional character of Brexit support that outweighs the clear reasoning that points out that leaving the EU is a weakening of all parameters making up Britain’s standing and position in the world. Indeed, Trump and Putin’s delight at what is happening alone should be a pointer that Brexit is a seriously silly thing to do. Boris Johnson’s lies in the Telegraph, each one proven as a lie in a listing that did the rounds about two years ago, now are mentioned as a main driver for Brexit. Any sane person would likely review his or her commitment to Brexit for that reason alone and certainly cease believing anything Johnson c.s. say or write. That isn’t happening, instead of taking back control Johnson can openly propose to prorogue Parliament to ram Brexit into their breakfast on the 31st of October and brexiteers don’t even blink at this loss of parliamentary control. Probably because they haven’t a clue about the enormity of what’s going on with respect to loss of democracy. In fact, it is my opinion that brexiteers in general haven’t a clue what democracy entails when they speak the word. That it rests on privileges, but certainly also on duties to uphold the procedures to ensure fairness for all concerned, including those who lost the vote. This is where the edifice of the infantile first past the post system, resting on a foundation of abject lies, has damaged the UK in the Brexit referendum and will no doubt see the UK fall apart as Scotland now finds itself playing the lightweight cousin against a ten times bigger member of the family. Without the protection that the EU built into its political systems, yet facing an England where politics descended into chaos and the one with the biggest mouth is right. It has gone so awfully primitive, and precisely that is what points at where democracy in Britain had in-built points of failure. Similar to the USA, incidentally, where the GOP is now engaged in blatant destruction of democracy. I can well see a similar process starting up here too, in order to get some sort of love it or lump it order back in the daily grind. If that does happen, do not expect an EU that is going to be highly interested in any kind of normalization of trade and politics with England.

  • Opinions being spouted off as facts – and clearly prejudiced ones.

    This is the result of lazily brainstorming the worst things possible for a cons list and the least positive/pointless ideas for a pro list. If an equally (un)balanced Brexiter went about it in the same way – the article would be the polar opposite.

    Ricky Gervais was spot on when he highlighted this overwhelming trend that has become the norm sadly.

  • What is missing from the lists of cons is the possibility of there being a financial crisis similar to Black Wednesday. Boris Johnson is hardly a reassuring figure to foreign investors and that plus the damaging no deal policies of his government implement could easily lead to a loss of confidence in sterling and a flight from the pound. Any IMF bailout would come with onerous terms.

  • Some good points, but writing a piece about the pros and cons of Brexit is not a good idea. You might as well write about the pros and cons of chopping your legs off.
    Brexit, any Brexit, is an act of total barbarism and stupidity;, please don’t try to make excuses for it.