Like many Remainers I tend to latch on to articles that suggest that the whole ugly Brexit business might go away. There has been no shortage of these: the possibility that Article 50 might be stopped by a Parliamentary vote, that the fearsome complexity of negotiating an exit might make it drag on forever, even that Theresa May is involved in some Machiavellian plan to smother the ugly runt. It would be immensely stupid, however, to rely upon wishful thinking to get us out of this mess. As Nick Clegg said recently in the New European: ‘Theresa May’s government has a mandate from the British people to pull Britain out of the European Union. Pro-Europeans like us…must accept the verdict of the British people.’
The fact is that Leave won. Accepting this fact allows us to move on and to fight the coming battles. If we are going to salvage anything from the Brexit wreckage I believe it is important to engage with the arguments and to find common ground with Leavers. Despite the fact, for example, that some newspapers are suggesting that Britain is ‘booming’, I think most reasonable people recognise that this period of uncertainty is doing great damage to the British economy. It has led to a devaluation of the pound, which is now feeding into higher prices on the high-street, confidence is down and some firms are actively considering moving out of the UK. The economic health of the UK is important for us all, especially if we are to have a well-funded and vibrant arts scene. And it seems abundantly apparent that the parlous state of the UK economy has little to do with its fundamental health. It is merely riven with uncertainty. We need to end this uncertainty quickly and, more to the point, to influence the manner in which this happens, for if we don’t it is clear that things could get a lot worse from here.
The most worrying sign is that we are about to be sold a ‘hard Brexit’ of the sort advocated by John Redwood, Bill Cash and even those who are responsible for negotiating our exit such as David Davis and Liam Fox. Whilst triggering Article 50 and damning the consequences would end uncertainty, it would not do it in a particularly attractive way. A hard Brexit, which would entail leaving the Single Market, would almost certainly damage the position of the London as a global financial centre, especially though the loss of EU passporting, which allows financial companies to operate freely throughout Europe. It’s not fashionable at the moment to defend the so-called metropolitan elite, but we need to remember that London generates 22% of the UK’s GDP, much of it from financial services. Perhaps the rest of the country might consider that fact the next time we want to spend more money on hospitals, schools and the arts. I also think that Leave voters in places like Bridgend and Dagenham are unlikely to be very happy when they lose their jobs because the foreign companies for which they work decide to move elsewhere in order to retain access to the Single Market.
In my opinion we need a different kind of certainty, one that addresses the wishes of the 52% whilst taking into account the not insubstantial 48% who wanted to stay in the EU. Theresa May has talked optimistically of a bespoke solution for the UK. I think there is some reason to believe that we might achieve some flexibility in our exit terms, but I think it would be impractical, given the mammoth complexity of leaving the EU, not to at least base this on an existing model. I think it is far from ideal—the Guardian memorably describing it as ‘No say. Still pay. No way’—but the obvious solution seem for me to be the Norwegian option i.e. leaving the EU but re-entering the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
First of all let us be entirely clear about one thing: the referendum was a vote to leave the EU, nothing more and nothing less. It wasn’t a vote to end immigration, it wasn’t a vote to leave the Single Market, it wasn’t a vote to normalise the sickening rise in racial hatred we have seen over the last month-and-a-half. So, first of all, the Norwegian option does, in fact, exactly satisfy the democratic mandate that the government now has. We will have left the EU, but we will have done so in the way that least damages the economic interests of the UK and preserves a measure of cross-border collaboration. To sell the option to Leavers will, however, requires us to engage with their objections.
Firstly, Leavers would say that we would not be taking back any power under the Norwegian arrangement and would have to abide by Single Market rules without being able to shape them. This is not true—Norway is exempt from EU rules on agriculture, fisheries, justice and home affairs. There is also evidence to suggest that the country has influenced EU decision-making where it affects their country whilst EFTA members as a whole have won many exemptions from EU directives. Secondly there is the argument that we would still have to pay the EU to be part of the EEA. This is true, though there is scope to reduce this amount. Norway pays a per capita net contribution of €107.4, the UK currently €139, so even as a starting point this represents a reduction. There is, however, scope to reduce this further given that the nominal per capita GDP of the UK is less than that of Norway ($43,771 vs. $72,046). Thirdly, the hottest issue of all: free movement.
In making the Norway case we need to start by also making the argument that immigration from the EU benefits the UK. The statistics support this—the fiscal contribution of EEA nationals in tax revenues last year was €3bn, compared to £0.5bn claiming benefits. Sadly, however, positivity about immigration is unlikely to sway more hardline Leavers, so we need to offer something more tangible, no matter how much it sticks in our craw. It has been much derided, but I believe the so-called immigration ‘emergency brake’ might provide the solution. Other EU countries, including Norway, have this option in the case of ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties.’ They have never used it for fear of inviting the ire of the EU and, as a result, have quite high levels of EU immigration. I think we are in a strong position to argue that the UK’s current situation is exceptional and its application for at least seven years (as Cameron actually negotiated in his pre-referendum deal) therefore necessary. It would give us a modicum of control while maintaining the principle of free movement.
The issue of non-EU migration ought to make the Norwegian option an even more attractive sell. Historically this has been much higher than EU immigration, though this has narrowed in recent years. Leaving the EU is actually likely to make this worse. Defending the UK border relies on the goodwill of our European partners, as the willingness of the French to allow the UK border effectively to operate in France shows. Whilst the Le Touquet Treaty is not currently under threat, there are other aspects of European law that help us to control non-EU immigration. Chief of these is the rule that states that asylum seekers must make their claim in the EU country in which they first enter. It is a law that not only prevents and discourages non-EU migrants from heading overland to the UK, but actually allows us to send those who do back to their first country of entry. This rule would probably cease to apply once we exit the EU, but some kind of equivalent or ‘opt-in’ would be far easier if we were negotiating a soft Brexit.
The application of the Norway model provides, therefore, the best solution for the UK’s current political predicament. It would fulfil the democratic mandate that the government now has and it can be implemented quickly, ending the uncertainty that is damaging business, education, science and the arts. And there is a further argument in support of it that can be made to Leavers: it doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of the story. It is something that can be achieved relatively quickly and painlessly, but if the British people show an appetite for further separation from the EU, then it might serve as a safe stepping-stone to the hard Brexit that some want. From a Remain perspective, of course, it might provide an easy point from which we could return to the European fold. Voting demographics, let us not forget, heavily suggest a future majority in favour of EU membership.
Whether any of this is politically possible given Theresa May’s very narrow margin for manoeuvre is questionable. There are definite signs she is playing a long game, but ultimately she might be held to ransom by the right wing of the Tory party. For this reason I think it is important for Remainers to act. We need to make it clear to our MPs, especially those in Conservative constituencies, that hard Brexit is not acceptable. Most MPs were in favour of Remain. In this context a solution that would fulfil the wishes expressed in the referendum, stabilise the economy and, potentially, prevent the break-up of the UK ought not to be a difficult sell.
I personally hope that once the government has negotiated a leave package that this is once again presented to the British people in a referendum. It would simply be the electoral equivalent of saying: are you sure? And at least this time we would know exactly what we were voting for. I can, however, see the argument that such an approach would appear anti-democratic, the sort of underhand method the EU always uses to get its own way. And, whilst such a vote would give the flickering hope that the UK population would come to its senses, we might, of course, get exactly the same answer. It is, therefore, of vital importance that we don’t rely on such eventualities as a means to get us out of this pickle. Our working assumption must be that Brexit is happening. That it cannot be stopped, only ameliorated.