What if there is no EU left for the UK to negotiate with after Brexit?

Because they fail to understand the political moment within which we live those campaigning for Britain to leave the EU are wasting the voters’ time raising talk of different post-Brexit models for the UK.

The beneficiaries of a leave vote in the referendum on 23rd June will not be centrist, free traders like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove who wish the EU (minus the UK) well. It will be populists like Nigel Farage who want the whole EU dismantled. It is Farage’s comrades who have seen their vote share rise across Europe, now control countries as important as Hungary and Poland, and are challenging for serious political power in Austria, Spain and France.

These are the political forces with momentum, they are the ones who will claim Brexit as a huge boost to their cause and will call for the obvious next step — similar referenda across every country in the Union. A move which could well lead ultimately to the winding down of the EU and a reversal of the open borders, free trade principles that have been at its heart.

And, of course, these populists will be helped enormously by the fact that Europe will probably be plunged into deeper economic turmoil as investors take fright at a very uncertain future for the EU post-Brexit. Such turmoil will only encourage voters to look to populist alternatives as happened in Greece.

In fact, what Brexit may be is the beginning of the end of the great free trade experiment in Europe and the rise of a new era of protectionism. That may sound fanciful but the single market is a remarkable historical exception not a rule. Brexiteers may give the impression that free trade is the natural default for the global economy but they are wrong. Nation states have a much, much longer history of putting up barriers to trade with other countries than pulling them down. That is why we do actually need annoying supra-national structures founded on the core principle of openness to ensure there is no backsliding to protection.

So all the talk of Norwegian options, Swiss models, Canadian deals for the UK could well be pie in the sky. It assumes that the EU emerges from Brexit largely unharmed and unchanged, governed by reasonable cosmopolitans who still value free movement of goods and capital across borders.

The truth is free trade is a precious, delicate object that needs constant nurturing. Throw it up in the air and you may not catch it before it smashes into a hundred pieces.

My book ‘Small is Powerful: Why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over’ is published on 30th June. You can follow me on Twitter here.