Let's imagine the UK votes to leave the EU. What happens next?

It’s a realistic prospect, and now brilliant young diplomat Iain Mansfield has come up with the answer


Imagine that Britain had voted in a referendum earlier this week to leave the European Union. This would mean that Britain would cease to be a full member in two years’ time – April 2016. Difficult and complex negotiations would have to have been completed by then to establish the terms for withdrawal.

How might that work out in practice? This is the question that the Institute of Economic Affairs turned into a prize competition: entrants were invited to compose a blueprint for Britain outside the EU, covering the process of withdrawal and what should happen afterwards. The judges, themselves genuinely distinguished, were chaired by the successful former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Lawson.

The tone of the winning essay by the 30-year-old Iain Mansfield, who works in the UK’s embassy in the Philippines as Director of Trade and Investment, is well conveyed by its title – “A Blueprint for Britain: Openness not Isolation”. In other words, this is not the work of some gnarled anti-EU warrior of limited vision, but of a clever young man who knows something about the art of the possible in international trade negotiations.

Mr Mansfield rightly argues that the greatest economic priority would be to ensure that zero tariffs were maintained on trade between the UK and the EU in all areas other than agriculture. Failure would be a serious matter. If Britain found itself on the wrong side of a tariff wall, not only would our substantial export trade with Europe suffer, but also foreign businesses would see little point in investing here.

If this unpleasant scenario appears implausible, remember that the European Commission and the European Parliament would be hostile, fearing as they would a diminution in their power. And as Mr. Mansfield points out, some European nations would see British withdrawal as a betrayal and would want to ensure that a sufficient example is made of the UK to deter others. There would also remain the risk that a large member state, say France, would block the UK from enjoying a preferential trading arrangement, in effect repeating General de Gaulle’s notorious “Non” to British entry of more than 50 years ago.

To see one’s way through this problem, it is best to start by cataloguing Britain’s strengths. We are the sixth largest economy in the world. We have a high place in all the international organisations that count – as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as a substantial contributor of military resources to Nato, and as a leading member of the various bodies that bring together the world’s largest economies.

Having puffed out our chest, the next step would be to get real. That means that we would have to accept some EU regulations in return for free access to the single market. That is implicit in the nature of markets: their efficient working depends upon abiding by fair-trade rules. This shouldn’t mean, though, accepting regulation on purely internal matters such as working hours, hygiene requirements for domestic restaurants, or regulations for women on boards.

But there are other concessions that we should be ready to make, such as continuing to pay the UK’s budget contributions to the end of the budget period and making good arrangements for EU workers currently residing in the UK.

Equally, we should not turn our back on Europe. We should look to build up strong bilateral relations. In international affairs, for instance, Britain agrees with France more than with any other nation. We should also actively engage with business organisations across Europe to make the case for an open trade settlement. They would probably support us.

These are some of the factors that leads Mr. Mansfield to argue that “if handled correctly”, the UK could be confident of achieving a positive result from the exit negotiations. “If handled correctly” – this is the final and perhaps most important factor. For the exit negotiations would be so significant, and would depend so much upon such goodwill as Britain enjoys, that only the personal leadership of the prime minister of the day could bring success. For two years it would dominate his or her period of office. It would be a European campaign that if carried out successfully would earn a place in the history books.

What in their time Marlborough, Wellington and Churchill achieved by force of arms would now have to be won through the deployment of soft power. But do any of the current leaders of the political parties have the skills to carry off a well-managed exit? I have my doubts.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas