The UK Independence Party’s policy on the European Union covers trade, defence, foreign affairs, and what they call “Brexit” – a British exit from the EU. The success of the first three depend on the latter: if there is no Brexit, UKIP’s policies are more or less redundant. Unfortunately for UKIP, coordinating a Brexit would be no easy matter.
On trade, UKIP simply assumes that the UK will be able to negotiate a free trade agreement, make its own trade deals on its own terms, and retake its seat in the World Trade Organisation. Some of this may be possible. But it could take a long time, and be contingent on securing the agreement of all the other EU states – some of which may not be amenable.
We know from past experience that trade negotiations between EU states can take a long time. For example, it took years to negotiate the entry of Spain and Portugal to the European Economic Community. In 1974, Portugal’s dictatorship ended – the same happened in Spain’s in 1975. Both applied to join the EEC shortly after, but neither were acceded until 1986. This was not because the EEC was hostile, but because it had other issues in play, as well as niggles over special interests such as wine.
There is another issue: Britain does not have a strong track record of cooperation with the EU. For example, the Common Assembly – a forerunner to the European Parliament – was initially formed to circumvent British objections to the the Monnet/Schuman suggestion for a European Coal and Steel Community. Britain has also tried to “re-negotiate” its terms on several occasions; either formally as in 1974 to 1975, or as part of treaty negotiations for the Single European Act, the Treaty on European Union and more recently the Lisbon Treaty. On top of this, Margaret Thatcher was trying to win back “our money” in the protracted negotiations over the EU rebate in the 1980’s.
It’s a similar case with defence. The British armed forces are not what they were: the number of people in the armed forces is down from 221,330 in 2012 to 194,570 in 2015. Even France had to borrow planes and helicopters from the United States of America to carry out specifically French tasks, in areas of the world that were always of special interest to France. No medium-sized state can act independently outside its immediate sphere of influence.
Given the population size of the UK, it has to be accepted that our defence interest, our procurement of equipment, and increasing specialisation of the armed forces means that we need to be in league with our neighbours. This is also true because there is increasing doubt about the enduring nature of the US commitment to Europe, given its increasing emphasis on other areas of the world.
The US is already worried about what role the UK can play. But perhaps most important is the increasing cost of military equipment and the fact that there is a blurring of the lines between research and development in civilian and military areas. And if the EU focuses more and more peacekeeping, we would presumably want to be involved in our own neighbourhoods.
In both trade and defence there is really no such thing as independence. A state can be independent by name, but not by nature. World trade is interdependent. Decisions about jobs in Scotland are increasingly made in the China, or India or the United States. A small to medium state like the UK (population 64.1 million) will find it increasingly difficult to carry out significant negotiations with larger states like the United States (population 320 million), India and China (population of more than one billion each) on its own, since these states will much prefer to deal with the European Union (population of over 500 million).
There is, of course, another argument: YouGov polling from February this year showed a record lead for the In vote. So a “Brexit” is not necessarily the vote winner that UKIP claims.