A comrade for Leave argues that repeal of the European Communities (EC) Act 1972 instead of activation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is “not an option“, calling it “irresponsible”, “unthinkable”, “thoroughly un-British” and “a political and economic disaster”.
This is strong talk, and accurate too as far as it goes. There’s no doubt that an act as extreme as unilateral withdrawal from the EU outwith the provisions of the Treaty would be an internationally wrongful act earning us severe opprobrium and probably massive economic reprisals around the world. This is why it is not generally mentioned as the first resort for British disentanglement from Brussels. But it remains possible for the one reason Ben neglects to mention in his post.
The European Union rests on its processes and institutions making ongoing membership more attractive and (crucially, for democracies) less politically painful than reaping the potential benefits of flexibility outside is structures. Accordingly this requires the Member States to pressure each other not to give up on the project. It is comparable to unionisation: the many can only retain the benefits so long as individuals don’t break off and bargain on their own to undercut the others.
A unilateral British withdrawal, though painful in the short run, would remind other Member States that they retain their sovereignty, and accordingly the right in domestic law to quit the EU whenever they want. It operates, not as a thoughtful tool of public policy, but as a weapon, an earthshaker to disrupt the very foundations of the European project. In the aftermath of a British withdrawal, it seems likely that other countries with strongly Eurosceptic tendencies like Denmark and the Netherlands would start sabre-rattling over their own place in the EU, with government ministers perhaps issuing menacing innuendoes about leaving by fiat unless the EU gives them what they want. Doubtless the British government, sensing an opportunity, would be wooing these nations with promises of trade deals and alliance to counterbalance the ailing Union to the south.
It isn’t accurate to say that withdrawing without recourse to Article 50 is “not an option”. It is not a pleasant option, and it’s one we ought not to use without regard for the consequences. But it’s there like a hand grenade at a Mexican stand-off, and should be treated in the same way. The SALT treaties were only negotiated by accepting that the use of nuclear weapons was not just not unthinkable, but eminently thinkable. Only by doing so can we hope to avoid catastrophe.