Brexit With Blinders: Theresa May’s Cunning Plan

by Andrew Stuttaford

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s prolonged silence over the type of Brexit she favored was, I have hoped, both a matter of clever tactics (it wouldn’t make sense to reveal too much ahead of what will be very difficult negotiations) and part of a broader strategy – to give Brexiteers purs et durs (of whom there are quite a few at the top of the Conservative Party) time to work out for themselves that detaching the UK from the EU is best achieved carefully, surgically, and with a recognition that some compromises may have to be made. Storming out and slamming the door is a tantrum, not a plan.

I still hope to be proved wrong about this, but it’s increasingly looking as if May is, to borrow a line from Bismarck (he had a way with words that one), “a sphinx without a riddle”: Her silence conceals, well, nothing.

Ominously May told the BBC today that “the UK cannot expect to hold on to “bits” of its membership after leaving the EU”, a remark that some are taking to mean that she is rejecting the ‘Norway option’, membership of the EEA (essentially a single market shared with the EU) such as that enjoyed by Norway, a country that has, despite the best efforts of its political class, twice rejected membership of the EU. Let me say it yet again:

Norway is not in the EU.

This chart reinforces the point. 

And, contrary to the claim made by many Bremainers and, revealingly, ‘hard Brexiteers’ too, Norway does have a say in the rules that affect it. Under certain circumstances, it also has a ’right of reservation’ (a sort of opt-out). 

Over at EU Referendum, Richard North lets rip with characteristic acerbity, but this is what really matters:

Undoing 44 years of political and economic integration was never going to be “simple”. It can be managed, and a successful extraction is eminently possible, if we are sensible about it.

Yes, there is no doubt that some Bremainers are exaggerating how difficult Brexit might be, but there are real complications and they cannot be washed away by (to borrow from May) red, white and blue.

North suggests looking at the list of chapters of the EU acquis (broadly speaking, its body of law and regulation):

As North notes, these chapters have to be addressed by all accession countries and it stands to reason that Britain will have to “reverse engineer” exactly the same chapters if it is to “enjoy an orderly departure”. To call Britain’s withdrawal “simple” is, he observes, “grotesque”.

If only as an interim step (there’s a separate debate about that), the best way to achieve this remains (if it is available) some variant of the Norway option, not only because it is (more or less) an off –the-shelf solution, but for the reason North sets out in an earlier post (my emphasis added), an argument he has been making in different ways for years. 

[Brexit minister] David Davis… believes that we can negotiate a deal inside two years because, “on the last day of our membership of the European Union we have identical product standards and service standards, and so on, to the European Union”. We have, he mistakenly says, “perfect mutual recognition for most areas”.

The issue, of course, is that unless we have a dynamic agreement with the EU, where relevant UK law is automatically updated, and unless we also have a mechanism for adopting ECJ-mediated augmentations to EU law – both of which are necessary to ensure regulatory convergence – the EU will not accept that UK exports conform to EU requirements, without additional verification.

The Norway option would be that dynamic agreement.

Meanwhile, writing in the Financial Times, Philip Stephens makes some familiar, but important points about the different ways that Brits and those on the continent see the EU:

Chris Patten once remarked that for all its decades of membership, Britain had never really joined the EU. What the former Tory cabinet minister and European Commissioner meant, I think, is that it had never properly grasped the psychology of European integration. For France, Germany, Italy and the rest, the union was a political project with emotional roots deeper than the economic rationale. For Brits, it was a commercial transaction — a club they had signed up to by dint of straitened economic circumstance rather than political choice.

It’s worth adding a bit more.

When the UK joined what became the EU, British voters were, broadly speaking, told that they were joining a ‘common market’, nothing more. That was never true.  At the same time, once the UK had joined, it was, thanks to its veto (since much diluted), in a position to have slowed the trudge to ‘ever closer union’ to a crawl. Sometimes it didn’t because it believed that aspects of that trudge (most notably the single market) would benefit the UK. During the disastrous Blair/Brown years it didn’t because of europhile conviction. On other occasions, British governments took the easy, but in the long-term unwise, decision to secure an opt-out for the UK. It would have been far better to insist—as was Britain’s right in many areas— that EU integration instead proceed at the pace of the most reluctant. Had it done that, the EU of 2017 would have been a far more modest affair, and there would have been little or no need for Brexit.

For the UK to have taken this stance would, sooner or later, have triggered a massive crisis in its relations with the rest of the EU, but it would have been better to have that crisis then (if it turned terminal, there would have been less to unravel)—and from a negotiating position within the EU, a negotiating position far stronger than the one the UK enjoys now.

There’s one other thing:  Yes, the Continent’s elites, at least in Western Europe, remain wedded to the idea of ‘ever closer Europe’. But voters don’t seem so sure. They don’t want the EU to break up, but, on the rare occasions they are given the chance to vote against deeper integration, they tend do so.  

Then they are ignored.

And that, in the end, is why Britain has to leave: It’s the post-democracy stupid.

But that’s no reason for Brexiteers to make Brexit any more difficult than it already will be. 

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