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If France could quit NATO without permission, why can’t Britain leave the EU?

Author’s note: I gave a talk at one of Brian Micklethwait’s end-of-month Fridays on the Brexit process and why and how libertarians should think about it. This is a sort of distillation of my views, with added material from events of this week. Thanks again to Brian for giving me a chance to hash this out in a congenial atmosphere, along with the likes of Patrick Crozier, also of this parish.)

I haven’t anything particularly original to add to the immediate furore about Mrs May’s plan but thought I would set out a few thoughts here, particularly as people on the pro-liberty side of the fence are often divided on the Brexit question. (Yes, there are libertarian Remainers, and may the Lord have mercy on their souls.)

Mrs May’s “deal” is awful, in my view, and my former editor, Allister Heath, says what needed to be said yesterday in a typically trenchant Daily Telegraph column. To paraphrase (the DT is behind a paywall), he notes that, for example, members of NATO are free to leave without having to get permission from the others first, whereas under this “deal”, the UK would have to ask Brussels’ permission to leave the Customs Union. (In the 1960s, De Gaulle took France out of NATO in certain respects at the height of the Cold War, let it be noted.)

In all walks of life, people can and do end agreements – they get divorced, change jobs, leave membership organisations of all kinds. I even cancelled a gym membership once – I don’t recall asking any civil servant’s consent. And the world continues to turn. Only the EU, it seems, wants to lock the UK into an indefinite arrangement, like a form of involuntary servitude. The only way that such a deal would ever be overturned is by extra-legal means (yes, and that might even include military action). The fact that the EU demands such terms from a country that is making very few other changes to its post-EU situation and paying £39 billion for the privilege, is so evidently unjust that one wonders if there is a secret agenda for the UK to crash out. (I sometimes wonder if this is what is going on, but then remember the more obvious reason which is that Mrs May, who supported Remain, does not and did not want Brexit to happen, other than superficially, such as getting blue passports and being meaner to immigrants, as part of her generally authortarian mindset.)

The oddity about our situation is that while the EU moves on towards becoming ever more centralised – assuming the euro-zone doesn’t crack up under its contradictions – the new technologies and ideas shaking up business and creating our future are going to come from free, open economies, where the State is relatively small, taxes are low and flat, regulations are strict but not wide, and where entrepreneurship and grit are prized qualities. The EU, by contrast, trundles on, poisoning national politics, stirring up ugly populism, and lining the pockets of a group of people who are so convinced of their own virtue that they express open contempt for democracy. We forget, for instance, how the EU recently helped to stamp out seccession of Catalonia from the rest of Spain. The Scottish independence folk who think Brussels is their friend should take note.

My dislike of these forms of bullying and obduracy are in general the reasons I voted for Brexit over two years ago. This was never going to be a clean or easy process – there’s too much invested psychologically in this project of an EU state for its architects to give up easily. For some on the Remain side, this goes deeper than “market access” or the ability to hire a Polish cleaner without fuss. It’s about virtue, modernity, of being part of the progressive side of history.

For those on the Brexit side like me who hew to classical liberal ideas on society, in the tradition ranging from John Locke all the way through to Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, it is also important to acknowledge that some on the Brexit side are as collectivist, and fans of Big Government, as some Remainers appear to be, while some on the Remain side hold broadly liberal views and genuinely worry that Brexit will mean the return of socialism and protectionism. Those worries should be taken seriously.

Brexit does not have to involve any diminution of a drive towards a freer society – ultimately, what will make the difference are the values of the people who make up a political construct. To those libertarian Remainers who – rightly – object to the idiocies that we Brits are capable of inflicting on ourselves (and the list is long) I make this point: it is a damn sight easier to chuck out a national government than it is to chuck out a whole political class from 28 separate countries, with different languages and political traditions. And that, for me, is the most important argument of all.

34 comments to If France could quit NATO without permission, why can’t Britain leave the EU?

  • François

    France never quit NATO
    What France left was the NATO Military Structure

  • Anthony Trauring

    The EU is not the only uber-organization requiring its assent for a member to leave. Among the many issues settled by the American Civil War, the promise of secession was crushed. A state can not leave the USA without the USA’s (unlikely) permission.

  • Aetius

    The whole thing is steeped in bad faith. The Article 50 process was designed to give the EU the whip hand over any state trying to leave. The Commission’s team then ‘negotiated’ in a spirit of producing a result that would deter other states from leaving, and they hoped would cause the UK to think again. Crucially, I can’t shake the feeling that the senior British civil servants involved in this charade were in on it, and intended to produce a result, which would lead to us either cancelling leaving or re-joining.

    The clear solution is to leave with no deal.

  • Mary Contrary

    Because NATO is merely an alliance, whereas the EU is, or thinks it is, or at least intends to be, a country.

  • bobby b

    “The Article 50 process was designed to give the EU the whip hand over any state trying to leave.”

    I don’t see this. I think Article 50 was the EU’s miscue, an oversight, a meaningless gesture that turned out to have a costly meaning.

    All you need to do, for two years, is listen politely as the EU advances proposals, and then quietly say to each “no, that won’t do.” And then, at the end, you’re out.

    I imagine that if one thinks of GB as a vassal state – as a state dependent upon the charity and largesse of Germany and France and maybe a few others – if one worries about GB’s ability to earn its own keep and keep food on the table without the EU’s help – then Article 50 becomes a threat that the EU can hold over you.

    But if you see GB as a strong, self-sufficient entity that can hold its place in the world based on its own efforts and abilities and resources, then, where is there a threat in Article 50? The absolute worst that can come out of the process is, you leave with no pre-ordained agreements in place, and you need to negotiate new bases and understandings. But the countries of the EU (ETA: and maybe more importantly, the merchants of the EU) are still going to want to trade with GB, they are still going to want normal relations with you, and they are going to still try to gain advantage over other countries in their dealings with you. They may risk some intra-EU ire as they work with you, but that’s going to crumble as they all try to work with you. They can’t afford NOT to work with you.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “But if you see GB as a strong, self-sufficient entity that can hold its place in the world based on its own efforts and abilities and resources, then, where is there a threat in Article 50? […] But the countries of the EU (ETA: and maybe more importantly, the merchants of the EU) are still going to want to trade with GB, they are still going to want normal relations with you, and they are going to still try to gain advantage over other countries in their dealings with you.”

    This seems to ignore the logic of a customs union; the entire reason for having one in the first place. The idea of a protectionist customs union is for the merchants and government to conspire against the general public (the consumers) in order to exclude the competition and so keep prices high. If the UK is excluded, so the reasoning goes, they will be able to replace us and charge EU consumers higher prices for the poorer-quality replacement. The UK merchant class want to be in on the scam, too, and they’re the ones who fund the Conservative Party.

    People keep on thinking about the negotiations from the point of view of benefitting the UK or EU nations as a whole – but that is not who is negotiating. It’s the merchant-government conspiracy that is conducting the negotiation, on both sides. If they were actually negotiating in the best interests of their nations, then they’d rip up the customs union entirely and scrap all the tariffs, subsidies and protectionist regulations forthwith!

    The protectionist EU merchants don’t want competition from a “strong, self-sufficient entity that can hold its place in the world based on its own efforts and abilities and resources”, they’ll be practically salivating over the prospect of replacing us with their shoddy alternatives at a higher price. And the UK merchants are not going to be happy facing competition from the rest of the world without those shields, and are not going to calmly watch May let them go so easily. If you want to predict how the negotiations are going to go, you’ve got to start thinking like a protectionist!

    They’re not negotiating for you, in your interests. They’re negotiating for their paymasters. And it was easy to see this coming even before the referendum.

    Your only hopes are either that the deal falls apart and they’re secretly using the poor terms and infighting as an excuse to tell their paymasters it’s somehow not their fault; or that the fuss about the lack of an exit clause results in them adding one, we see this as a first step, and the threat from a resurgent UKIP results in further renegotiation at a later date.

    The raison d’etre of the EU is primarily as a protectionist enterprise. May has to keep her Party funders happy first, and then the electorate (half of them remainers). What did you expect?

    People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

    – The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter X.

  • Laird

    I agree with bobby b. That’s what I meant the other day when I said that the UK “holds all the cards.” Just wait it out and go with no deal. They need you far more than you need them (there is a whole world out there anxious to do business with you, not least the US which has already offered to negotiate a very favorable trade deal). Article 50 gives Brussels no leverage whatsoever; its only power is that which you give it.

  • llamas

    Somebody help me. I happen to be in GB right now. I ‘m trying, I really am, but I completely fail to understand what’s going on with Brexit. Each day’s headlines confuse me more. It’s almost like those in power are deliberately making things so confusing that it’s impossible to really grasp what’s going on.

    Could somebody please post a simple primmer on the current status of Brexit? Please?



  • Stonyground

    It is like a form of priest craft Llamas, I think. I don’t think that the issues are anything like as complicated as the politicians are trying to pretend they are. We can’t have the plebs thinking that their cat could have sorted out a better deal than May did,can we?

  • Mr Ed

    France could leave NATO because the remainder would have had to deal with the 5 Soviet Armies in GSFG, the Warsaw Pact slave armies and their plan, on Day 1, to drop 500 nukes on Denmark (and do likewise elsewhere). Simple geography said that Germany goes first. I have often said that D-Day ought to have been in Belgium, and simply left the French to stew. The EU hates NATO as it offers a counter-example, although without a Soviet Union to oppose, it has tended to be looking for things that weren’t NATO matters, like bombing Serbia, although they did keep the Red Star longer than necessary.


    You are quite right, confusion is the aim, they have started saying or even put at risk Brexit’ over the last fortnight or so, airing the true plan.

  • Patrick Crozier

    But isn’t there an issue with the Irish border? Don’t you have to put up customs posts? Don’t you have to put up rather a lot of them and wouldn’t they be vulnerable to attack?

  • Roué le Jour

    Britain may hold all the visible cards, but the card that isn’t seen is the EUs “nice economy you have there, shame if anything were to happen to it” card. It’s like divorcing the psycho wife, make lots of placating noises and back away slowly. I wouldn’t be surprised if, assuming the UK actually leaves rather than merely becoming a non-voting member, the EU wages an economic cold war out of fury at the UK breaking up their little racket.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    France left the military structure of NATO which was technically not the same as leaving NATO but in the circumstances that’s the same as actually leaving. Particularly given what was at stake.

    NATO doesn’t aim to be a country, true, but then it behoves EU fans to be more honest about that fact, rather than keep defending it as a purely economics issue. I rarely see the wider political agenda honestly confronted.

    We can and should leave without delay, on WTO terms, prepare customs arrangements, etc, and then tell Barnier et al to go fuck themselves.

    The difficulties around the Northern Ireland border are exaggerated – quite deliberately. There are borders around the world that seem to operate without this level of angst.

    The EU’s attempt to weaponise this issue has been a disgrace.

  • bob sykes

    May has nullified Brexit and made the UK a permanent, but junior, nonvoting, member of the EU. Her opponents don’t have the votes to remove her and won’t even try. If the DUP goes along, Northern Ireland is effectively part of the Republic but without the vote.

    Can there be a more stinking mess? Where is the SNP when you need them?

  • Daniel

    Britain may hold all the visible cards, but the card that isn’t seen is the EUs “nice economy you have there, shame if anything were to happen to it” card.

    I’ve never understood why the UK negotiating position wasn’t ‘Nice union you have there, shame if anything were to happen to it’.

    Every rEU country has an opposition movement or an internal secessionist movement. How difficult would it have been to have some diplomats seen, in an officially deniable context, with their representatives. A credible threat to bring all the EU’s internal contradictions to the fore would have sharpened the minds of the EU’s bureaucrats desperate to preserve their union, their jobs and potentially their lives. The Catalonian referendum so brutally suppressed by the Spanish could have been a perfect example of this. The UK’s minority nations have been largely given self rule and the opportunity to vote in their own referenda so its not like the EU could throw the threat back at us.

  • will

    Does the EU really want to go to the matt over a hard Brexit with no negotiations? I doubt it. Unlike the Northern states in the American War Between the States, the remaining EU nations don’t have the military muscle to force GB to remain. It would also be a violation on international law and the NATO charter. GB should simply say “We’re done. Sure m and try to collect on any judgement.” The EU would find a way to broom it under the proverbial rug.

  • JohnW

    Seems the elites agree on the essential issue – is knowledge collective or individual?

  • Russtovich

    I don’t understand the fixation (or getting one’s panties in a twist) over the Irish border thing. Put up little pill boxes and just don’t man them. Besides, I don’t see border checks working out very well for America’s southern border (Mexico’s southern border too for that matter). And Italy is, literally, having boatloads of people wash up on shore. How does their having border checks or customs posts prevent that?

    As for “attacks” on the border, or customs posts or whatever; didn’t Ireland already go through this with the IRA? Sheesh.

  • Paul Marks

    According to the rules of the European Union a country has to give two years notice to leave.

    Therefore the United Kingdom should have left at the end of June 2018 – having voted to leave in June 2016. But this was prevented by Mrs May – who did not “trigger article 50” till March 2017 (in spite of going to her first European Union conference as Prime Minister in September 2016).

    It is now clear that Mrs May has no intention of allowing the independence of the United Kingdom even after March 2019 – E.U. fishing boats will remain in British waters, and all general economic regulations will be “harmonised” with the European Union – i.e. de facto European Union regulations (present and future – including censorship of the internet) will continue to rule the United Kingdom AFTER March 2019.

    “It will be fixed in the future” is clearly as false as the claims of the Soviet Union to achieve utopian communism at some point in the future.

    Under Mrs May, the United Kingdom will not achieve independence at the end of March 2019 – or EVER. Mrs May must go.

  • Paul Marks


    To be fair to the European Union (and to its puppet the government of the Republic of Ireland) they were prepared to negotiate a Canada style free trade agreement with the United Kingdom – it was MRS MAY who sabotaged this.

    The European Union (and the Republic of Ireland) did not start with a “bulling attitude” (I DETEST them – but even I have to admit they seemed reasonable at first). What happened is that it dawned on them that they had an ally (indeed a stooge) in the person of the British Prime Minister Mrs May.

    It would have taken a saint not to push things when they realised that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was on their side AGAINST the British people.

    Think about it for a minute – think about the reasons that someone like me hates the European Union and then think of MRS MAY.

    Economic regulation – Mrs May loves economic regulation, she is not someone to fight against E.U. regulations.

    Censorship – again Mrs May loves censorship, the idea that she would stand for freedom of speech against the E.U. is absurd.

    And on and on…..

  • Laird

    “Britain may hold all the visible cards, but the card that isn’t seen is the EU’s “nice economy you have there, shame if anything were to happen to it” card.”

    That puts it exactly backward. The EU needs trade with Britain far more than the reverse. The UK alone comprises 1/7th of the total EU GDP; for the rumpEU to arbitrarily cut off all trade with the UK after Brexit would be the most monumental example of “cutting off your nose to spite your face” in the history of the world. It would be an utter disaster for the EU (not Britain). The bureaucrats in Brussels could try to issue such a threat but it would be entirely a bluff; there is no substance behind it. Plus, keep in mind that the US is a far larger economy than the entire EU even before exit of the UK, and it would be immediately available on more favorable trade terms than is the union of which you are now a member. You just need a leader with the intelligence to recognize this, the courage to implement it, and the desire to leave. Unfortunately, your current leader lacks all three.

    Incidentally, as a pure matter of international law, every sovereign nation always retains the unrestricted right to abrogate a treaty any time it chooses. Yes, the treaty might contain an exit mechanism (such as Article 50), but at the end of the day you honor it only because you choose to do so. Squeal as they might, no one can say otherwise.

  • Paul Marks

    I agree with you Laird – but there is the Mrs May factor.

    It is hard to win a Football game when your Quarterback is really working for the other side.

    I am reminded of a British intelligence officer (he must be dead now) telling me how his sense of achievement for his work in World War II diminished when he found out that the head of German Military Intelligence (Admiral Canaris) was really pro British – “it is not so hard to score goals when the opposition goal keeper is letting the ball in – or even kicking the ball into the back of the his own net himself”.

    The Prime Minister of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is working for the European Union against us.

    I know what I have just typed, I am not drunk and I am no more tired than usual. I meant what I just typed.

  • Roué le Jour

    It’s not backward, Laird. I am suggesting that post brexit the EU will attempt to sabotage the UK in any way it can (not necessarily openly) even if it is not in its best interests to do so pour le encourage les autres. The breakup of the EU is a more pressing concern than the economy and if brexit is a success the EU is finished.

  • Roué le Jour (November 18, 2018 at 1:28 am) you are correct about motives but Laird (November 17, 2018 at 10:18 pm) and bobby b are correct about actualities. The EU is experiencing many problems and the EUrocrats are a good deal less skilled at achieving things in the actual world than in the world of treaties and pronouncements. They will desire to cause us problems after (a real) Brexit – but will have many problems of their own. The intense desire of EUrophiliacs to prevent or nullify Brexit reflects a very real concern about the future – but it is not a concern for the well-being of those they rule, though presented as such.

  • Eric

    There’s no reason for the UK to do anything but tear off the band-aid at this point. You don’t owe the EU anything.

    You’d better do it soon, though, before Junkers and Merkel get the EU army they’ve been stumping for lately.

  • Philippe Hermkens

    Nobody has ever asked for tariffs or quotas between UK and EU. It means that you have already a Free Trade Aerea deal between UK and EU

    Nobody can ask a trade partner to accept goods and services not following the rules (phytosanitary rules, safety rules, .) of this trade partner.

    UK can’t ask EU to accept its meat without also accepting EU sanitary rules.

    These EU rules can be very silly, indeed, for instance, not meat produced with GMO food. But they are the EU rules voted par the European Parliament and the European Council of Ministers

    If so you must have custom checks for regulatory purposes at the border by Member states customs officials

    It means that you don’t have frictionless trade.

    It means you have huge delays at the border.

    It means that Toyota thinks to leave UK

    Or you stay in the Single Market ou you have Brexit in Name Only

    The rest is real buffoonery.

    Unfortunately it is what is happening from both sides Hard Brexiteers and Leavers

  • pete

    I don’t get the bit about asking for the EU’s permission to leave the customs union.

    Even if that is what Mrs May’s deal agrees, there is nothing to stop the UK leaving the customs union at any time it wants. The EU could complain it broke the agreement and impose sanctions or go to toothless international courts, but it couldn’t stop us doing exactly what we choose.

    Mrs May does not have the power or the authority to bind all future UK parliaments to obedience to Brussels on anything, and Brussels doesn’t have the power or the authority to stop the UK breaking any agreements.

  • Mr Ed

    November 18, 2018 at 5:41 pm
    I don’t get the bit about asking for the EU’s permission to leave the customs union.

    Even if that is what Mrs May’s deal agrees, there is nothing to stop the UK leaving the customs union at any time it wants.


    I expect that the UK’s courts will ‘find’ that EU law is supreme in the UK as the ECJ is involved in the withdrawal deal, and that as it has agreed to be a member of the Customs Union, the UK’s Parliament has eternally ceded the right to independence by leaving the EU as the ECJ now determines matters, and remaining in the Customs Union is irrevocable.

  • Philippe HERMKENS

    if an UK government with the ascent of the UK Parliament says that an international treaty is void from such a date, it is void.

    But the UK government will have to face the consequences.

    For me, this W.A. is already politically completely dead even with a yes from the actual UK Parliament. Something else will come

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Laird wrote: “The EU needs trade with Britain far more than the reverse.”

    Of course, there is no EU or UK, there are people, and they need things to varying degrees. I was chatting on Twitter with a chap in manufacturing who, when I said that unilateral free trade was wonderful, pointed out that for him, overnight he has a lot more “paperwork and expense” moving parts between the EU and the UK. I can at least see why people like him would vote for the EU, even if, in the long run, when all the EU-reliant businesses have failed and been replaced by non-EU-reliant ones, things will be better.

    Though all this does rather underline the true purpose of the “paperwork and expense” that can appear overnight just because some people wholly uninvolved in manufacturing decide so: if the EU really cared about free trade it would unilaterally apply it globally.

  • Paul Marks

    Everyone is still writing of the government of the United Kingdom as if the head of that government, Prime Minister May, was not a stooge of the European Union.

    Prime Minister May is a stooge of the European Union – so you are all missing the point. Just as so many Members of Parliament and ministers are missing the point.

  • Sam Duncan

    Spot-on, Paul. The line coming out of Europe now seems to be that the deal has already been agreed between the UK government and the EU, and anything from here on in is just clearing up the details. We need a new PM now who will remind them that our Parliament is sovereign, and if it says “no” it means “no”.

    It’s deeply ironic that Gina Miller spent a fortune to get a parliamentary vote on the final deal, and now her lot want to pretend it doesn’t mean anything.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Nicely put. The dishonesty of this lot is disgusting.

  • Roué le Jour

    Every statement May makes should be preceded by “Brussels calling, Brussels calling.”