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Brexit: Avoiding the Cliff (Even Now)

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a speech on domestic priorities at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, Britain, July 27, 2019. (Lorne Campbell/Reuters)

Whatever else the prorogation of Parliament may be, it is not (as some excitable sorts are claiming, and other excitable sorts are reporting) a “coup.” Rather, it is the use of a commonplace (and legal) device but at a time when British politics are anything other than business as usual.

Whether or not it is a wise move is a different question. My own guess is that it is a possibly smart, certainly risky tactical move, but strategically a mistake: If it succeeds, it will allow Remainers to reinforce their claim that Brexit was brought about by trickery, a claim that may well have staying power if the U.K. moves towards the sort of ‘no deal’ Brexit that is looking increasingly likely, a no deal that will led to a great deal of difficulty both economically and politically.

As so often, it’s worth reading what Richard North has to say over at EUReferendum. And as so often, his remarks are a touch acerbic, but the central point he has been making for years is as correct as it always has been. A Brexit that involved severing the U.K.’s relationship with the EU in one abrupt move has never been the way to go. Instead:

The aim [should]  be to keep the best of [the UK’s] agreements with the EU, while freeing the remaining Member States to follow their own path towards political integration, a route which [the UK] no intention of following.

This should not be a matter of ending the U.K.’s relationship with the EU, but of redefining it:

There are no circumstances where [the UK] could not have a continued relationship with the remaining 27 EU Member States. And, since the EU is increasingly the mechanism by which the EU-27 organise their external affairs, that requires [the UK] having a relationship with the EU as well.

Given the complexity of the relationship that the U.K. had developed over decades, North argues that Brexit “should always have been regarded as a process rather than an event, taking decades rather than months or even years.”

Indeed, but that process has to start somewhere, and . . .

When I’ve managed personally completely to mess up a complex piece of software-driven electronic equipment, the last resort before one is forced to admit defeat and trash the whole thing – or return it to the manufacturers for a “service” that will cost more than the original equipment – is press the “factory reset” button….

In political terms, we already have a factory reset button for what some people (wrongly) call a half-way house – the Efta/EEA or “Norway Option”. It would solve the “backstop” problem, and buy us time to discuss seriously our long term options – a debate we’ve never really had.

We need to rethink this option as a “middle way” that could command the majority support of the electorate, if addressed correctly and honestly, on a realistic timescale

Already, the EFTA 4 UK is seeking funding to write to 650 MPs, 73 UK MEPs and hundreds of peers to remind them of the availability of this option. They should be given a chance.

The big mistake made by so many of the advocates of this option in the recent past is to assume that it is an off-the-cuff answer that can be implemented quickly. Yet there is no EEA treaty as such, but multiple treaties, each adapted to the specific needs of the three NIL Efta Members.

To adapt such a complex and comprehensive treaty to serve the relationship needs of the EU and the UK would take all of the two years allowed for in the original transitional period, which now already needs an extension.

But, with proroguing parliament, that does leave Johnson the option, in a new session of parliament, to re-present the Withdrawal Agreement, asking for their support against the assurance that he will use an extended transitional period to implement the Efta/EEA option, with the added proviso that we are probably looking for a 10-20 year membership before any drastic new step is taken.

Where I would differ with Richard North is in his view of the Norway option. To him, it’s a step along the way, to me it is a perfectly adequate final destination, with the bonus that the mere addition of the large U.K. economy to a grouping currently consisting of Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein will change its clout, its appeal and its direction — all in good ways.

North notes that adopting this route will allow Boris Johnson to meet some of the key commitments regarding Brexit that he has made, commitments that seem unachievable (North takes a harsher view of these commitments) if the prime minister sticks to the approach he is now taking.

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