British prime minister Theresa May has managed to survive her party’s annual conference. Indeed she might (if only for a day or two) have emerged from the proceedings with her position actually enhanced. But the mess she is making of Brexit will ensure that this is only a temporary respite. A year or so ago, her misreading of the political dynamics of post-referendum Britain led her to botch a general election. Making matters worse, by insisting on a series of ill-thought ‘red lines’ in her negotiations with Brussels, she rejected the most obvious route to a Brexit that restored British sovereignty with minimal economic disruption. This was (and is) the ‘Norway option’ (which I may have mentioned a handful of times on this Corner over the years).
With the road to Oslo closed off, all that was left was a choice between the hardest of Brexits (euphemistically known as the WTO option) or a ‘bespoke’ deal. Given (1) the mishandling of the early stages of the EU negotiations (May started the clock running against her without, incredibly, a plan), and (2) the attitude of an EU that had the whip hand, and it was inevitable that bespoke was not going to be pretty. Sure enough, May has come up with a humiliating bespoke proposal (the ‘Chequers’ plan). And sure enough, Brussels seems set on making it more humiliating still.
This led Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, to dust off a column he had written back in May, 2017 on the difficulty of negotiating with the EU, something of which he has some experience. I disagree with Varoufakis on just about everything (and wrote as much back in the depths of the Greek crisis), but in that piece he had some interesting insights into the way that Brussels operates.
It’s worth reading the whole thing, but he called this right, for example:
The prerequisite for Greece’s recovery was, and remains, meaningful debt relief. No debt relief meant no future for us. My mandate was to negotiate, therefore, a sensible debt restructure. If the EU was prepared to do this, so as to get as much of their money back as possible, I was also prepared for major compromises. But this would require a comprehensive deal. But, no, Brussels and Berlin insisted that, first, I commit to the compromises they wanted and then, much later, we could begin negotiations on debt relief. The point-blank refusal to negotiate on both at once is, I am sure, a colossal frustration awaiting May when she seeks to compromise on the terms of the divorce in exchange for longer-term free trade arrangements.
The only way May could secure a good deal for the UK would be by diffusing the EU’s spoiling tactics, while still respecting the Burkean Brexiteers’ strongest argument, the imperative of restoring sovereignty to the House of Commons. And the only way of doing this would be to avoid all negotiations by requesting from Brussels a Norway-style, off-the-shelf arrangement for a period of, say, seven years.
The benefits from such a request would be twofold: first, Eurocrats and Europhiles would have no basis for denying Britain such an arrangement. (Moreover, Schäuble, Merkel and sundry would be relieved that the ball is thrown into their successors’ court seven years down the track.) Second, it would make the House of Commons sovereign again by empowering it to debate and decide upon in the fullness of time, and without the stress of a ticking clock, Britain’s long-tem relationship with Europe.
Where I would disagree with Varoufakis is on the idea of capping in advance the duration of a Norway-style deal to seven years. That’s unlikely to appeal to the UK’s prospective partners in the ‘Norwegian’ half of the equation (they won’t want to be used as a parking lot) and it’s not necessary either: The future will bring what it will bring. Meanwhile, a ‘Norwegian’ future continues to beat the alternatives.