If, as seems likely, Britain ends up remaining inside the single market, continues to accept mobility of labour (involving 300,000 plus immigrants per year), continues to pay about £1.56 per head per week, as a "membership fee", will she be IN or OUT of the EU?

All this is on the assumption that Britain stops sending MEPs to the Parliament in Strasbourg, and abandons car number plates which have gold stars on them. It also assumes that Britain retains those elements of EU law which the UK Parliament wants to keep - which will probably amount to at least 90% of it.

Will we be IN or OUT?

  • I have not heard of such an option, could you provide a source for it?
    – SJuan76
    Jul 8, 2016 at 13:40
  • @SJuan76 This is hypothesis. It is the sort of deal that many in Britain expect to negotiate with the EU. Almost certainly the EU will negotiate something like this, since it is even more in their interests to get a trading agreement with the UK than it is Britain's to get one with them (e.g One in every five cars manufactured in Germany is sold to the UK).
    – WS2
    Jul 8, 2016 at 14:56
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    I understand that, but since numbers were so specific I was curious if there was more in-depth info about it (who supports it, how have been the numbers calculated, etc.)
    – SJuan76
    Jul 8, 2016 at 15:20
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    It's easy: The UK will have no vote in the EU, but will have to adapt a lot of the laws/regulations (which it will no longer be able to influence) of the EU to do business with the EU if it wants special treatment (like remaining in the single market). If the UK doesn't do that, it will be treated like every other foreign state, e.g. Argentina. Jul 8, 2016 at 20:34
  • @WS2: That means german cars (and japanese and italian and french and ...) might become more expensive in the UK. And that those factories producing cars for the european market might close. So what? I'm sure that was predicted by the Remain camp. Jul 9, 2016 at 16:01

2 Answers 2


The answer whether Britain will be "in" or "out" cannot be determined solely from the assumptions you gave. If the U.K. stays in the EU, obviously "everything like elsewhere in EU" will be still true. But the reverse implication isn't quite true. And it's unlikely that the U.K. stays "in".

The U.K. voters have voted to be "out" so if their voice will be respected, and that's surely what one expects in this cradle of democracy and capitalism, Britain will be out regardless of all details of the type you mentioned.

Whether a country is "in" or "out" an organization like the EU isn't a vague question as you suggest, something one may be fuzzy about. The answer is and has to be absolutely clear because lots of legal and political decisions and rules depend on it. The map of the EU is absolutely clear and well-defined – check e.g. Wikipedia – and every informed person knows the list of members. That will be true at every moment in the future, too.

Britain's being out will have numerous consequences. It won't really pay a "membership fee". A deal between the U.K. and EU may force the U.K. to pay some money – just like Norway pays some money – but this money has no reason to be exactly as high as you propose. The fee, if any, will be a result of bilateral negotiations between Brussels and London, not a result of unilateral dictate from Brussels. And one cannot call this contribution a "membership fee" because a membership fee may only be collected from members and Britain that is "out" is by definition a non-member.

Britain's being out will have moderately far-reaching consequences on many policies. In particular, only Britain itself will be deciding how to control the immigration and lots of other aspects of the Brits' life – whether strong vacuum cleaners or light bulbs or double deckers may be used, sold, and produced. In particular, tens of thousands of EU laws and regulations won't apply to Britain. Some of them may have similar British counterparts, some of the EU laws may be adopted "completely" in Britain, but this adoption will be in no way automatic and in practice, the bulk of the law just won't be valid in the U.K.

Norway is more closely associated with the EU than Switzerland. But even in Norway, only a minority – 10 or 20 percent – of the EU laws apply. The percentage is much lower in Switzerland. The spirit of the Brexit discussion was that the Brits voted to be much closer to Switzerland than Norway when it comes to their relationship to the EU.

To summarize, the causal relationship goes exactly in the opposite direction than you suggest. Whether the U.K. is a member or not is an important condition that determines many aspects of the life of the country. It's not true in the opposite direction, as you suggest, that its membership can be "calculated" from the way what the life in the country actually looks like.

And your expectations about what will happen are rather unrealistic. The prospective British prime ministers don't seem to be willing to continue in the open-door immigration policies, for example. The massive influx of people from the Middle East but also from post-communist Europe will be severely reduced or stopped once the U.K. officially leaves the EU.

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    Dear WS2, from any strict legal and political perspective, your comments are just wrong and sloppy. Britain's not having the Euro or being out of Schengen doesn't imply and cannot imply that it was outside the EU. It was an EU member who got opt-outs from several particular policies. Czechia is outside the Eurozone as well - has no opt-out and no tangible plans to introduce the Euro - but no one would doubt that we're full-fledged EU members at this point. Similarly, Bulgaria and Romania aren't in the Schengen now but they're "legally obliged to join" which is an empty phrase. Jul 8, 2016 at 10:03
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    It's up to the British people to decide whether they want to change their opinions and verdicts of referendums twice a year. I am not British. A weak pound has advantages and disadvantages. Jul 8, 2016 at 10:04
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    Technically the UK voted to 'leave' the EU rather than 'remain' a member, due to how how parliament and the Electoral commission worded the referendum question. Of course "in" and "out" were both used by campaigns on both sides of the debate, so the distinction gets a bit fuzzed.
    – origimbo
    Jul 8, 2016 at 12:12
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    "Out" and "leave" imply exactly the same thing about the U.K. relationship to the European Union (just like "in" and "remain" would) - it will simply no longer be an official member. The single bit of information "leave/out" doesn't imply all the details about the future arrangement, indeed - that will be largely decided by the government and perhaps the Parliament, and affected by the other (EU) side of the negotiations. But the politicians are constrained. @WS2 's claim that the "leave" result is either vague or unhelpful when it comes to the precision of the message is a pure falsehood. Jul 8, 2016 at 15:33
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    So any deal remotely similar to the EEA will impose significant constraint to the UK, to the extent that it's difficult to see how it could be better than actual membership or satisfy the demands of those who voted to leave. Obviously, the UK will, by choice or by default, always have the option of a clean break (something many EU enthusiast or bureaucrats actually regard as the least bad solution at this point) but since the UK also really wants to retain access to the single market, it's badly in need of a deal about that so it's not in a position to decide anything unilaterally.
    – Relaxed
    Jul 8, 2016 at 23:58

What leaving means a minima is quite clear: Not being a party to the main treaties (TEU and TFEU) and therefore having no members to the European Parliament, no commissioner, no vote in the EU Council or in the European Council, no judge to the EUCJ, etc. With the weight of a referendum whose result was not even close, it's incredibly difficult to see how the UK could backtrack on this and not formally leave the EU in a few years time.

Beyond that, it's impossible to predict how the negotiation might go and that makes the now famous phrase “out means out” almost meaningless. Clearly, one option would be an EEA-like deal but it would involve very heavy constraints for the UK and it's difficult to reconcile this with the promises of the Leave campaign and the apparent motivations of the voters. At the same time, since the UK is also very keen on retaining preferential access to the single market, it might find itself forced to access something like that (and the many influential people in UK business or politics who have lost the referendum are probably not going to sit still and not defend their interests in this matter).

If that's what comes to pass, you could end up with situation much like that of Norway; pretty much all the downsides of membership with even less sovereignty than before and little influence on the direction of the EU. You could argue whether that counts as being somehow part of the Union but formally and legally, the UK would clearly be “out” of it. It's also difficult to see how such an arrangement could be viable in the long-term, with all the same rules people have been complaining about still in place and now literally being dictated from Brussels.

For, unlike what the other answer implies, that's exactly what's required of Norway: Applying most EU rules (including the stuff on light bulbs, vacuum cleaner, etc. but with one major exception: agriculture and fisheries) with no actual say on their contents. The single market just cannot work without making sure, e.g., that products authorized in each and every country of the EEA meet common agreed-upon standards regarding safety, environmental impact, labelling, etc. So Norway isn't by any stretch of the imagination free to decide alone or do anything else than automatically transcribing the rules and regulations coming out of the EU.

In practice, the EU decision-making process proceeds without any input from non-EU EEA member states and once it's done, experts from the non-EU EEA states have to evaluate whether the decision seems “EEA-relevant” and submit their view to the EEA Joint Committee (“joint” because it includes representatives of the non-EU EEA states and of the EU). If the JC decides something is EEA-relevant, non-EU EEA states have to implement it in a timely manner with no flexibility at the national level (see the description of the process on the EFTA website).

Interestingly, EEA members and even Switzerland contribute to the EU budget (in particular to structural funds and also to some other programmes they take part in) so, again contrary to what the other answer implies, you can't even say with any certainty that being out of the EU will allow the UK to reduce its financial contribution, at least not if it wants any sort of agreement with it. It's also important to realize that the UK already negotiated many special conditions, including a significant rebate on its financial contributions.

One thing the Leave campaign promised (implicitly or explicitly) is that the UK would be able to do better than this, basically pick and choose and negotiate a special deal and especially get rid of the free movement for workers and any financial contribution. To be sure, the UK is larger than Norway, Switzerland, and all the microstates that have special relationships with the EU but it's unclear whether that's an advantage that would allow it to negotiate something very different from the EEA or the bilateral agreements with the EU which Switzerland (still) has. There are many technical and political reasons why it would very difficult for the EU to allow this without seriously putting its very existence in jeopardy (that is: even if it wanted to help the UK out of this conundrum, there is no easy way to do it).

The last option is a clean break, which would actually allow the UK to free itself from all the rules you alluded to. I have heard many people in EU circles (bureaucrats or proponents of further EU integration) who would unofficially favor this solution and have no interest in nudging the UK to remain in the single market, precisely because they are afraid that anything else than a clean break would require the kind of deal I mentioned before and tempt other countries to renege on their commitments and make new demands.

Legally, a clean break would seem unproblematic and the UK would unambiguously be completely out of the EU. It would therefore clearly respect the wishes expressed by the British people in the referendum. The main question here is how much normal (free) trade relationships with the EU would hurt the UK economically (including but not limited to the financial sector) compared to the current unfettered access to the single market. It might also make life a bit more difficult for British citizens living on the continent and impact people in a few other ways but I suspect that this will not be the number one concern of the negotiators.

  • But since most EU countries have a trade surplus with Britain, it is even more in their interests to get a trade deal than it is Britain's. Another point to bear in mind is that whilst there is a single market in goods, there is no single market in services. Britain, whose economy is more heavily geared toward services, may be seeking some accommodation here in return for a trade deal on goods.
    – WS2
    Jul 9, 2016 at 13:27
  • @WS2 Harmonization is far from complete but services are certainly included in the single market (and increasingly so) so that will certainly be part of the negotiation. In fact, as I wrote in my answer, that's one of the major reasons why the UK would want to retain access to it so it's indeed very important.
    – Relaxed
    Jul 9, 2016 at 17:43
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    Beyond that, it all depends on what you mean by “free trade”. I don't expect that the EU (and much less the UK) would or even could impose punitive tariffs or anything like that so trade will remain largely free. Obviously, the rest of the EU would also benefit if the UK stayed in the single market but as I explained that's only possible if the UK continues to apply all EU (EEA-relevant) rules. It's not really a matter of agreeing to anything or negotiating some special agreement, it just cannot work any other way.
    – Relaxed
    Jul 9, 2016 at 17:54
  • Lastly trade surplus isn't particularly important, the volume of trade compared to the whole economy is. And trade goes both way, access to cheap goods is just as important to a service-based economy as it is to the seller. (In fact, at least one British economist argued that the consequences of the Brexit could be mitigated by unilaterally adopting a null-tariff for goods from everywhere, thus making even easier to buy cheap food and other products from outside the EU even if those countries do not offer anything in return. This analysis forgets a lot but you see the point.)
    – Relaxed
    Jul 9, 2016 at 17:55
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    And the irony of it all was that the Single Market was a UK initiative - undertaken by the Thatcher government.
    – WS2
    Jul 10, 2016 at 6:57

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