The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, declared in the Sunday Telegraph this week that we need to be 'absolutely clear about what we really want, what we now have and the best way of getting what is best for Britain' regarding our relationship with the European Union. By nightfall, the predictable fallout from this newspaper article was in full flow. Euro-sceptic Conservative backbench MPs were saying that it didn't go far enough; pro-Europeans were saying that it was a distraction when the Euro crisis was still in full swing.
In practical terms, this debate is simply pointless. While it is true that there is, since the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, technically a mechanism in place to allow a Member State to leave the EU, in practical terms that isn't an option. The economic and political consequences of even attempting to do so would be extraordinary.
Britain's trade relations within the EU are central to British economic wellbeing (as evidenced by the current effects of the Euro crisis on the British economy, at least in the government's explanation of our own lacklustre economic performance). The unpredictable consequences for the British economy -- unpredictable, but inevitably negative in the short to medium term -- would likely cause prolonged chaos in the international financial markets, both for the UK and everyone else. The Pound, currently seen as a relative safe haven for international investors in a time of global financial crisis, would plummet as investors fled. No amount of confident rhetoric from the government would convince the world's markets that a single nation could extricate itself from something as politically, legally and financially complex as the EU and do well in anything less than a decade.
Leaving the economic turmoil aside, the legal implications of an EU withdrawal are hard to overstate. Almost every aspect of domestic law is influenced by EU law to some extent. Some of those effects come directly from Brussels by virtue of EU Regulations which are part of our law in the same way as an Act of Parliament from Westminster. Others are indirect, affecting the ways in which domestic law is interpreted and understood because of the influence of EU law and the rulings of the Court of the European Union.
There would also be huge international legal consequences. Vast swathes of international law, both to do with Britain's relationship with other countries (and the EU itself, of course, which is not going to go away just because Britain leaves it) and to do with business and personal relationships involving an international element, are currently determined by EU law. To give just one example from my area of research, child maintenance and contact arrangements for families whose members move within the 27 EU countries are all governed by EU law in the guise of the Brussels II revised Regulation. Withdrawing from the EU would mean that that legal mechanism for allowing the enforcement of maintenance and contact arrangements would disappear.
And then there are the political consequences. When Britain joined the EU, along with Denmark and Ireland, in 1973, there were only 6 existing Member States, and even so the economic and political reasons for joining were compelling. Now, with 26 other Members and numerous candidate countries wanting to join, the political exclusion that would flow from a departure from the EU would be immense.
The idea that Britain would retain any meaningful influence in European politics in the wake of our departure from the EU is laughable, while our relations with countries beyond the EU would likely be weakened by our new-found international isolation. We would no longer benefit from the international might of the EU, negotiating on behalf of 27 countries, and would instead be struggling to make our lone voice heard on the international stage. The elevated view of Britain's importance in the international community held by Britons is, some will be surprised to find, not generally shared by people in other countries.
In short, regardless of whether you love the EU or hate it, the consequences of leaving now are so great that they would outweigh even the most optimistic benefits promised by the most optimistic Euro-sceptic for decades to come. Given that, there is no realistic prospect of Britain leaving the EU, and it weakens Britain's position internationally to have a Prime Minister pandering to the isolationist right wing of his party by even discussing the possibility.