On 29 March, Sir Tim Barrow, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the European Union, handed a signed six-page letter from the British Prime Minister to the President of the European Council, invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and confirming the UK’s intention to leave the EU. So where do we go from here?
This act starts the two-year countdown of negotiations with the 27 remaining members of the European Union over a withdrawal agreement between the UK and the rest of the EU. At the end of the two-year period, the UK automatically ceases to be a member of the EU, with or without an agreement.
During the exit negotiations, the UK must resist calls to reverse the metric progress that has been made since 1965 when the UK started its own metrication programme in response to demands from British industry and the adoption of the metric system by an increasing proportion of its export markets. Now the metric system has spread to every country in the world and is now the global standard for measurement. Some populist imperial nonsense has been espoused by Eurosceptic politicians and newspapers in the last few months. Unfortunately, many of these see the metric system as an imposition by the EU. This widespread myth has led to a lot of hostility to the metric system and demands to go back to imperial units in domestic trade and commerce.
British negotiators will try to get a free trade deal with the EU and seek free trade agreements and trade deals with the rest of the world. Common standards and rules are the basis for deals for free, frictionless trade and the removal of non-tariff barriers and the ones involving measurement are bound to be based on metric units. How would the manufacturing and construction industries cope without the international metric standards for screw threads and other common spare parts? All the UK’s main export markets except the USA are metric. You can read more about that at https://metricviews.org.uk/2016/03/eu-in-or-out-metric-either-way/.
It was not always so. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British Empire ruled one-fifth of the world’s population, covered about a quarter of the world’s land mass and included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and various other countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This was the Empire that gave the imperial system its name. During the Empire period, the imperial system was used for trade and commerce among the countries of the Empire. However much nostalgia and sentimentality there may be for the old measures, those days are gone for good and will never return.
Since the UK voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, two main irreconcilable visions of Brexit have emerged. In the “Soft Brexit” vision, the British would remain part of the European single market and customs union, accept free movement of people from the EU, contribute to the EU budget and accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In the “Hard Brexit” vision, the British would withdraw from the European single market and customs union, end free movement, stop EU budget contributions and would no longer be subject to ECJ rulings. There is clearly a trade-off between the trade benefits and the EU obligations that come with these trade benefits. One thing that leading EU politicians have made clear is that the EU will not allow the British to keep all the benefits of EU membership while avoiding all the obligations that come with it, especially now that they are leaving the EU. The EU does not want to boost support for strong populist anti-EU movements that exist in other EU countries lest they encourage other EU member states to follow the UK out of the EU. Will there be any backsliding over metrication as the UK leaves the EU?
Even though the Prime Minister has opted for a hard Brexit, her Article 50 letter has some encouraging words about continuity, certainty, free trade and minimal disruption. As she says in her letter, “The Government wants to approach our discussions with ambition, giving citizens and businesses in the United Kingdom and the European Union – and indeed from third countries around the world – as much certainty as possible, as early as possible.” and that “We also intend to bring forward several other pieces of legislation that address specific issues relating to our departure from the European Union, also with a view to ensuring continuity and certainty, in particular for businesses.”. In the field of measurement regulations, the best way to achieve that is to retain the EU measurement directives in British law and to ensure there is no reversal of the metrication progress made so far.
These days, British architects, manufacturers, builders and engineers work in metric units, ensuring that they can compete with a metric world. The metric system is fundamental for manufacturing and exports. Everything that is built and manufactured is measured. Contrary to what we see all around us in the UK, a lot of metric usage is hidden. Whatever happens with measurement policy, this hidden metric usage is bound to continue. Our cars, roads and buildings are now all designed and built in metric units. This is unlikely to change.
Among all European countries, whether inside or outside the EU, the UK is the only one that is still using some imperial units. If the British want free trade with the rest of Europe, this will involve accepting common rules and standards and the ones involving measurements are bound to be metric as all other European countries, including non-EU countries, use the metric system. For example, the British accepted the ETCS (European Train Control System), an essential component of the ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) in 2014. When the British accepted this common European signalling standard for the railways, they had to accept the use of metric units on the railways as part of that standard (see https://metricviews.org.uk/2014/08/metrication-of-the-rail-network/).
Will the Brexiteers accept that we live in a metric world and that we must use the same measurements as the rest of the world to succeed in manufacturing, trade and commerce? Will UK measurement policy support Theresa May’s vision of “Global Britain” or support imperial isolation? Only time will tell.