Some See Slow Road Out of Europe for UK – Wall Street Journal

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron chatting with other European leaders Thursday at a Brussels summit.

Neither the British government nor the European Commission has drawn up plans for a potential U.K. exit from the European Union, according to officials in Brussels and London. There is no precedent for such a complicated split. To live apart in harmony, the two sides first would have to work out the terms of a divorce.

Up for negotiation would be 80,000 pages of agreements under 35 chapter headings from agriculture, fisheries, financial services, justice, employment and health, and beyond. In parallel, the U.K. would need arrangements for a new trade relationship with its 27 former partners as well as more than 50 countries with which the EU has trade accords.

This would mirror in some ways the accession accords that new EU members must sign before joining—with one big complicating difference. In an accession agreement, the two sides know what they are converging toward. In a withdrawal, the end state isn’t known.

Assuming a “Leave” vote prevailed in the U.K.’s June 23 referendum, negotiations would almost certainly be kicked off, as Prime Minister David Cameron has said, by London invoking for the first time Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which gives any member state the right to withdraw. It foresees two years of negotiations, which could be extended by mutual agreement.

To many officials, two years looks to be a hugely ambitious timetable to unwind more than 40 years of membership. Negotiating a much simpler trade accord with Canada took seven years, and it isn’t yet done. Once the negotiations were complete, the deal would need to be ratified by the U.K. and each EU member.

The British would have to navigate a trade-off between greater autonomy on one hand and access to the EU single market on the other. If the U.K. is to keep its access, most calculations suggest it will also have to agree to the principle of free movement of people within the bloc and subject itself to future rule changes in the single market without having any say over them. After a referendum in which many people voting to leave will have done so over matters of sovereignty, this may not be ideal.

Some campaigners in the exit camp argue that departure could be done in stages.

The first step would be to leave the EU but stay in the European Economic Area, a looser club that includes non-EU members Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland. That would keep the U.K. in the single market—though it would also probably mean accepting free movement, rules set in Brussels and a contribution to the EU budget. It would also need 30 governments to agree. However, it could critically minimize the fear factor in the referendum by reducing the risks of economic disruption.

After that, the EEA would be a safe platform to negotiate a further step away from EU rules and regulations.

This idea is controversial among many exit proponents in part because, in their view, it doesn’t unshackle the country quickly enough from the EU corpse. It also raises questions about the dynamics of a post-exit negotiation, in particular how incentivized the EU 27 would be to conduct a second negotiation over exit from the EEA.

While the withdrawal negotiations were under way, the U.K. would need to get its legislative machinery into gear. The government would face the question, as one senior British official puts it: “Now we are free to do what we want, what do we want to do with that freedom?”

The answer could take a decade. “Every legislative program for five or 10 years would be dominated by re-regulating and re-legislating everything in a sovereign British way,” the official said.

The moment the U.K. left, thousands of pages of EU regulation would no longer have force of law in the U.K. unless, to avoid a legal vacuum, the British parliament voted to keep them in place until replacements were legislated. The government would have to sift through U.K. legislation introduced as a result of EU directives to decide what it wanted to keep, replace or discard.

Mr. Cameron evidently doesn’t want to embark on this process. A government paper published last month concluded, “A vote to leave the EU would be the start, not the end of a process. It would begin a period of uncertainty, of unknown length, and an unpredictable outcome.”

His opponents retort that the difficulties of transition are being exaggerated. Even if the transition is complicated, they say, the final destination of liberation from the EU makes the risk worthwhile. For them, the end more than justifies the means, however difficult.

Write to Stephen Fidler at

Some See Slow Road Out of Europe for UK – Wall Street Journal