Wolfgang Schäuble’s statement that “In is in. Out is out” and the suggestion that the UK will not be able to simply enjoy full access to the single market if we vote to leave the EU can only come as a surprise to people who think that all of politics is reducible to economics.
It is absolutely true that continued free trade between the UK and the rest of the EU would be to our mutual benefit. However, the same is true of the free movement across the EU that the leave campaign is so desperate to bring to an end. What this shows is that even Vote Leave campaigners accept that the maximisation of economic benefit is not the only goal to be taken seriously.
If there’s more to it than economics, then why should it be far fetched that the rest of the EU might push for a tough post-Brexit trade deal? There are very good reasons why the EU will want to give us a tough time if we decide to vote to leave.
The first is quite simply that they will not want to send the message that leaving is an easy option. Giving a country the ability to pick and choose which benefits it wants without having to give back in a significant way. Sending this message really would risk leading to the breakup of the EU and a gradual regression to a more fractured Europe where war is again a real possibility.
The second is that by voting to leave, we will already have demonstrated that we are hostile to the idea of cooperation. If we are hostile to cooperation then it only makes sense for the EU to drive a hard bargain and subject any proposals we make to a special level of scrutiny. If you are confident that the person you are negotiating with just wants to ensure a good deal for both of you then, while you still have to stand up for your own interests, there are no special risks involved. On the other hand, negotiations with someone who has already demonstrated that they are hostile must be done extremely carefully. A hostile negotiating partner is more likely to plan to take actions designed to undermine your interests in order to pursue their own. You cannot be as confident with a hostile partner as you can with a friendly one the EU has every reason to cover every possible angle which might give us an advantage at their expense.
The difficulty with this is that it will necessarily lead to harsher terms than we would be able to get if we were approaching the EU on friendlier circumstances. There is a real difference between approaching an organisation looking for areas of mutual benefit and cooperation and making demands of that organisation immediately after rejecting significant cooperation with it.
We can certainly expect to hear more of the same from other European politicians over the next couple of weeks. We would be extremely foolish to assume that we don’t have to take them seriously.