The British government has outlined a series of dire warnings about the problems the country will face if it leaves the European Union without an agreement, suggesting that everything from drug safety to tobacco labelling, credit card fees and even organic farming would be adversely affected.
The warnings came in a collection of 25 technical papers released Thursday that explain the actions that would be needed in several economic sectors if no Brexit deal was reached. Another 50 papers are expected to be released over the next few weeks as negotiations between the U.K. and the EU head into the final stretch without a deal in sight. The U.K. is set to leave the EU next March and a withdrawal agreement governing the country and the union’s future relationship is supposed to be in place by October to allow time for ratification. While the U.K. government has insisted that it remains confident an agreement will be reached, it’s also preparing for a no-deal scenario.
“We have a duty, as a responsible government, to plan for every eventuality,” said Dominic Raab, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. “And to do this, we need to have a sensible, responsible and realistic conversation about what a no-deal situation really means in practice.” Mr. Raab sought to reassure the public that the country could cope without a Brexit deal, suggesting at one point that fears about food shortages were overblown and adding: “Let me reassure you all that, contrary to one of the wilder claims, you will still be able to enjoy a BLT after Brexit.”
His speech and the technical papers did little to ease the growing confusion about the government’s Brexit strategy. Cabinet ministers have sent mixed messages about the likelihood of a Brexit deal and Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to negotiate a customs arrangement with the EU is facing fierce opposition within her Conservative Party caucus. Many hard-Brexit backers argue the Prime Minister’s strategy will keep the U.K. tied to the EU, and that Mr. Raab and others are trying to scare people about a no-deal Brexit in order to make Ms. May’s plan look more palatable. Polls also show that the public is becoming less convinced Ms. May can deliver on Brexit, and campaigners are gearing up for a fight over whether the country should hold another referendum.
If anything, the technical papers illustrate just how difficult Brexit will be. The documents cover a range of sectors, and provide details about what will happen if the U.K. leaves without a deal and how the government will respond. In many cases the papers show that U.K. businesses would face an immediate barrage of new regulations and red tape because the U.K. would be outside the EU’s customs union and single market, which allows for the free movement of goods, services and people among member states. The U.K. would also have to quickly set up a myriad of regulatory agencies governing everything from drug approvals to nuclear reactors, organic farming and even sperm donations, because they are all currently overseen by EU regulators.
The papers add that U.K. consumers would face rising credit card fees because the EU’s ban on surcharges would no longer apply. And U.K. citizens living in Europe could lose access to U.K. bank accounts, insurance products and annuities because British financial institutions would no longer have passporting privileges that give them unfettered access to the EU. Even something as minute as the photographs used in health warnings on cigarette packages would have to be changed because the EU owns the copyright to the photos.
Mr. Raab said the government would initially seek to replicate some EU rules and accept EU-approved products such as drugs and medical devices. He added that he hoped the EU would reciprocate by accepting U.K.-approved products, but added: “In a no-deal scenario, we can’t guarantee it.” He also said the government has committed to taking over EU funding for farmers and other groups. And he pointed out that in the worst-case scenario the U.K. would trade with the EU on World Trade Organization terms, much like many other countries.
While Mr. Raab presented the papers as a practical response, some business leaders said the documents highlighted the dangers of a cliff-edge departure. “By now, few can be in any doubt that ‘no deal’ would wreak havoc on economies across Europe,” said Josh Hardie, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industries.
The papers have also fuelled the ire of groups lining up for a battle over whether the country should have another referendum on Brexit. The People’s Vote, which is campaigning for a referendum on a final Brexit agreement, said the papers demonstrate the need for a vote. “We don’t think the Brexit cheerleaders who created this crisis in Westminster can fix it now,” the group said Thursday. The organization got a boost last week when British businessman Julian Dunkerton donated £1-million (C$1.6-million) to the cause.
Another group, Leave Means Leave, has launched a campaign to push ahead with a clean break from the EU. It has the backing of Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party who has promised to campaign across the country this fall for a hard Brexit and against Ms. May’s strategy. Mr. Farage said he has been motivated by growing concerns about a no-deal Brexit, calling it “lies, deceit and treachery.”
“It is now beyond doubt that the political class in Westminster and many of their media allies do not accept the  EU referendum result,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph this week. "It is equally clear to me that, unless challenged, these anti-democrats will succeed in frustrating the result.”