John Major is wrong about Brexit, here’s why

Sir John Major has a proclivity for setting up straw men to destroy when he wades into the EU debate. His status as a former PM lends prestige to his words even when he is being dishonest or talking drivel.

Having said that, he does give a useful indication of just how damaging the tired and redundant Eurosceptic clichés are to the cause. Lessons should be learnt given how easily these weak spots can be exposed and attacked, though I fear the more clueless campaigners will continue to self-harm.

So let’s begin by acknowledging where Sir John Major makes pertinent points that all eurosceptics need to understand.

“Many of the things we are told we could achieve with a regaining of sovereignty are illusory”

The issue of sovereignty is important but misunderstood. It is true to say that secession from the EU will mean a repatriation of powers as the British people will regain their say over who ultimately governs us.

Moreover, our country of over sixty million people will no longer be overruled by majority voting in the EU, a situation that cannot in any way be described as democratic. Additionally, we will regain control of our trade policy and gain an independent voice and veto on the global bodies that set the standards of trade and industry. These gains alone make independence worth voting for.

However, as globalisation advances, national sovereignty in many areas becomes not only unfeasible but actually undesirable. The process of creating industry and commercial standards has become globalised. The EU does not create the “rules” of the single market anymore, which means that leaving the EU will not lead to a “bonfire of regulations”. We will still need to conform to international standards and it is not in any way feasible or desirable to set ourselves apart.

We cannot become a haven of deregulation on a hill, not without seriously hindering trade and damaging our economy, but we can increase our influence on the regulatory process and gain a veto and right of reservation with independence.

Cursing regulations that prevent us from buying products from countries with lower standards is not a referendum winner and leaves open goals for Europhiles like Sir John Major to score all day long.

It is also wrong to claim, as Sir John Major points out, that our entire net contribution would be saved and re-spent; this is the prime example of unconvincing number crunching:

“People say we can save all our net contribution – not true”

This is indeed not true; it just isn’t that simple. We have financial obligations that we would need to fulfill after Brexit and even after such obligations are expired there are many areas of cooperation which both sides would seek to continue (many of which other non-EU members participate in) and we would make financial contributions to do so. We will not win the referendum by claiming that we can spend our net contribution savings on more nurses.

The quote above is however followed by easily disproven tosh:

“We would have to pay at least half and possibly more of it simply for entry to the single market.”

This is the typical lie about what members of the EFTA and EEA pay for participation in the single market, as discussed here and  here. Conflating a variety of voluntary contributions and grants with actual contributions for participation in the single market is an old trick easily exposed.

The main crux of Sir John Major’s call for Britain to Remain is based on good old fashioned fear, uncertainty and doubt:

“If we leave the European Union, it won’t be a friendly departure, it will be very acrimonious […] Negotiations with an irate ex-partner could be very difficult. We may get a very substandard deal.”

Although this is pure speculation and fear mongering based on the assumption that our EU neighbours would rather commit mutually assured economic destruction out of bitterness than negotiate – something which would likely lead to recession and a resurgence of the Eurozone crisis – it is a concern expressed by many and has to be addressed.

The former PM is likely being deliberately disingenuous here because the EU rejecting a mutually beneficial arrangement just isn’t practical, feasible or, more importantly, legal.

To leave the EU the British government would lodge a formal Article 50 notification and so negotiations would take place within that framework. Aside from the economic necessity of successful negotiations the negotiators of both sides will be under very strong pressure to reach a timely accommodation because both EU and international law requires all parties concerned to negotiate in good faith and in a spirit of cooperation.

Article 50 requires the EU to conclude an agreement with the departing state, “taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union”. Furthermore, Articles 3, 8 and 21 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) require the EU to “contribute to […] free and fair trade” and to “work for a high degree of cooperation in all fields of international relations, in order to … encourage the integration of all countries into the world economy, including through the progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade

The EU negotiators are therefore bound by EU law to make all reasonable attempts to reduce trade restrictions in accordance with EU treaty provisions and, crucially, their actions are justiciable. If negotiators violate these legal provisions or if EU member states attempted to impose trade barriers or sanctions the UK would have the option of lodging a formal complaint with the European Court of Justice (ECJ), thereby blocking the action taken.

Additionally, the EU treaties exist within the framework of the Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties which states that all parties must act in “good faith”. “Good faith” is “almost certainly” an underlying principle of customary international law and is definitely a principle of WTO law. So, any suggestion, by John Major or anyone else, that the EU would – under the framework of Article 50, underpinned by separate Articles with the Treaties and reinforced by international law – refuse to negotiate on trade and fail to pursue an agreement in good faith is simply beyond the realm of practical, real life politics.

That is not to say that negotiations will not be “difficult”, it will require give and take and Britain will itself need to act in good faith and strive to nurture positive relations and build the foundations of strong and positive future alliance. Negotiations will need to be pragmatically based on the well-established principle of international agreements, that of “equal or shared misery”; a compromise in which both sides make sacrifices of roughly equal proportion without gaining major advantages over one another. This facilitates the reaching of an agreement.

For Britain, I contend, this means re-adopting the entire Single Market acquis in order to retain its access, and that means conceding freedom of movement. This will allow us a “soft landing” and a secure platform from which we can make the transition, at a realistic and pragmatic pace, from EU state to an independent nation state.

“For the United Kingdom, 67 million out of a world population of 7 billion, to break off and head into splendid isolation doesn’t seem to me to be in our interests.”

Finally, we have the above nonsense and additionally his warning that it is “very dangerous” to leave just as “the whole world is coming together”. The world is indeed coming together, increasingly nation states are coming together to deal with issues that at are better dealt with at an international level, from global trade and commercial standards to climate change.

What John Major doesn’t say is that this is being done on an intergovernmental basis through institutions and organisations that facilitate cooperation between states on an equitable basis whereas the EU is a political union in which member states are subordinate to a supranational government with structures that are not replicated anywhere else in the world. Contrary to his implication, it is the EU that is an anachronism and the advancement of globalisation is making it redundant and allowing the remarkably resilient nation state to prosper.

Leaving the EU will decrease our isolation as we will regain control of our trade policy, take our seat at the global “top tables” of trade and industry where we sit as equals with the EU and other nations, flexibly form alliances and coalitions according to the situation, pursue and complete our own bilateral trade agreements and continue our role in the vast array of intergovernmental organisations above the EU.

Sir John Major can easily, and justifiably, dismiss the small minded, ignorant, and regressive minority who want to leave the EU, but he has nothing that withstands scrutiny to combat the positive, progressive and pragmatic case for Brexit.


Ben is the Conservatives for Liberty Web Editor and a Brexit campaigner.  He blogs at The Sceptic Isle. Follow him on Twitter: @TheScepticIsle

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty