As a historian, I have a great respect for primary sources; indeed I wrecked my eyesight at university peering at old, faded documents. I think it is vital to look at people’s ideas in their own words, not a summary of those ideas reported by others. This is one of the things I really dislike about political discussion in the internet age. Don’t get me wrong, I think the internet is a brilliant invention that has helped the spread of ideas in the same way writing did in ancient Sumeria and the printing press in early modern Europe. But too many people seem to react to reports of what people said rather than reading what they actually did say. This is a real problem when said reports come from mendacious, agenda-driven organisations like the BBC. Which brings me to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.A great deal of ink has been used writing about Article 50 in the past couple of years. What very few people have done is examine the actual text. Here it is…
“1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Councilor in decisions concerning it. A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.”
Two points stand out in particular. In part 1 it says a state may withdraw “in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.” In other words, the question of withdrawal is entirely the business of the nation state that choses to use Article 50. Part 3 says that EU treaties will “cease to apply” from the time an exit agreement comes into force or if no agreement is reached then “two years after the notification” was received. The two year period can be extended with the agreement of both the European Council and the state that wishes to leave.
What does this mean in practice? It means the UK will leave the EU in March 2019 whether or not any agreement has been reached. I can’t see Conservative backbenchers agreeing to an extension and any hard talk about sanctions or vast x-billion pound demands from the EU’s numerous presidents can be ignored. If no agreement is reached then trade between the UK and the EU will simply be subject to WTO (World Trade Organsation) rules. The UK currently has a trade deficit with the EU – £9billion in March 2017 – so any trade war would hurt the EU much more than the UK.
A strange idea has taken hold of the media class in recent years, the idea that trade cannot happen without some kind of trade agreements. Unfortunately, most of the trade agreements that make the headlines are designed for the benefit of big business and, especially, the big banks. Trade predates civilisation, it will happen regardless of government policy or even against government policy – as the US$321.6 billion (2003) illegal drug trade proves. The Vikings were more traders than raiders – whatever the calumnies were written by Christians writers and recycled by lazy television executives – and they didn’t need government trade agreements to row all the way from Canada to Constantinople in search of markets.
The UK should try to negotiate an exit agreement with the EU but it should not be afraid to walk away if no deal can be reached.