I thought I would follow up on Chris’ post, from a position of even less expertise, but focusing more on the consequences of a referendum vote in favor of a British exit (BReakout?) from the EU. I’ll start by thinking about two polar cases.
One is the Norway/Switzerland model. Initially, the only thing that changes is that Britain gives up its political membership of the EU and institutions like the European Parliament, Council and so on. Otherwise things go on as before – Britain pays into the EU Budget, is bound by current EU regulations and subsequent changes, keeps its optouts on things like Schengen, at least initially, and maintains its current access to EU markets, free movement and so on. This seems to work well enough for Norway and Switzerland, but doesn’t seem likely to satisfy UKIP or Tory Eurosceptics. And, of course, it depends heavily on the goodwill of the EU. Britain could seek to negotiate further exemptions from EU rules, but, the EU could scale back the existing British optouts over time.
At the other extreme, Britain could unilaterally abrogate all the existing arrangements and start over from the position of, say, Russia – a major EU trading partner without any special rights or obligations other than those agreed on a case by case basis. Prima facie, that would include applicability of the standard third-country tariffs in each direction, non-tariff restrictions applicable to goods not compliant with EU (or, in the opposite direction, UK) regulations, standard visa requirements for travel, residence and work, controls on capital flows and so on. It seems clear that this would be damaging for the EU, and disastrous for the UK. Still, it also seems clear that this is what the Eurosceptics have in mind, though typically with a liberal dose of wishful thinking about how easy it will be to negotiate FTAs, visa-free travel etc.
Is there an intermediate path? I can’t immediately see one. Presumably, there is a notion that Britain would stay in while the terms of exit were negotiated. But that could last many years, and would effectively amount to the Norway/Switzerland situation in the interim.
Update Tory MEP Daniel Hannan argues that the differences between Norway and Switzerland are important, and that the UK could cut a better deal than Switzerland (again here) This seems like it would be wishful thinking, even if the exit were amicable, which seems unlikely.