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Brexit: flagstones breaking beneath our feet

2018-12-10 05:33:38

If we can discern anything with clarity from the noise that dominates the Brexit environment, the one thing that stands out is that the idea of a "Norway-style" plan B is dead in the water.

In all probability, it always was dead. The main window of opportunity was shortly after the referendum, before the environment had been polluted with rival plans. Then, below-the-radar approaches could have been made to Efta states and careful soundings made as to what would be needed for a successful UK re-entry.

However, with both sides – remainers and leavers – having dismissed the Efta/EEA option prior to the referendum, there was never going to be a point in the early aftermath when the political classes could switch tracks and embrace something they had already rejected. They may have looked through the window but, just as quickly, they slammed it shut.

The next possibility arrived with the "coronation" of Mrs May as leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister. With her talk of market access, it looked for a while as if she accepted the need to stay within the Single Market, which inevitably meant embracing the EEA option.

When that hope was demolished by Mrs May herself in her Lancaster House speech, that ruled out any formal government approaches to the Efta states, and when the official line emerged, about an EU exit automatically including leaving the EEA, it was effectively game over.

The only thing that kept hope alive was the certain knowledge that the UK still needed access to the markets of the EU Member States. And, as Mrs May thrashed around trying to find a way out of the trap she had set herself in Lancaster House, the Efta/EEA option increasingly looked to be the only rational option.

Thus, when Nick Boles popped out of nowhere with his "Norway for Now" idea, there were those who said we should be pleased. It put the "Norway option" back on the table and had people talking about it once more, we were told.

Yet, in sporting circles, anyone will know that the best way of throwing a match is to field a weak team against champions. You don't have to set out to lose, but the chances of winning are slight.

In this case, we didn't get to select the team, but it was still second-rate: its game plan was based on "parking" the UK in Efta for a few years while we sorted out a better deal for ourselves (if there was one to be had). There was unlikely to be a more calculated way of offending Efta states and thereby closing off any opportunity to pursue the "Norway option" proper.

Although prominent players in "Norway option" advocacy, Leave Alliance had not been consulted about Boles's initiative, or even informed after the event. But, when we reacted with less than unalloyed enthusiasm, we were treated as if it was us who were letting the side down. When we sought to explain why the plan was so badly flawed, we were told to have faith – Nick was about to produce something better.

Nick indeed did produce a revised plan. But he achieved something that we would not have thought possible – it was worse in many respects than the original, adding a "plus" which turned out to be an unnecessary customs union, toxifying the whole concept. But, said Nick, it was a good "compromise", whence he studiously ignored any criticism and concentrated his efforts on telling everyone who would listen what a good plan it was.

Now he has joined forces, very publicly, with Stephen Kinnock, even attempting in The Times to sell the merits of an "emergency brake", which Kinnock knows full well is a misdescription.

Although it has gained brief notoriety in the House, the lack of coherence of the plan comes over clearly, not least by its omissions. Boles believes this to be a "quick fix" – one of applying an off-the-shelf solution amounting to little more than a cut and paste job.

But what is so striking is that neither side, whether for or against, can mount coherent arguments to back their opposing stances. The antagonists amount to blind men in a padded room, lashing out at each other, occasionally landing a blow but more by accident than design.

Striking against the plan, we've already seen the People's Vote, with their report on Why 'Norway Plus' Won't Work. And a defence is now mounted by Andrew Yalland, in an article on the Reaction website.

Interestingly, Mr Yalland dates the genesis of the EEA Agreement from 1991, when – he says – the then Commission President, Jacques Delors, decided there was a need for a new, non-EU treaty "enabling non-EU European states to participate in the EU’s economic pillar without having to have membership of the political pillar".

This is a fiction. In fact, when Delors did intervene, it was in response to an already active initiative by the Efta states. And this came earlier than Yalland would allow, on 17 January 1989 when he laid out his ideas for what he called a "European village". This was a place where "understanding would reign" and "where economic and cultural activities would develop in mutual trust".

"If I were asked to depict that village today", Delors continued in his speech, "I would see in it a house called the 'European Community'. We are its sole architects; we are the keepers of its keys; but we are prepared to open its doors to talk with our neighbours".

The importance of this can hardly be overstated, positioning what became the EEA as an example of the willingness of the then European Community to open up its Single Market to Efta members.

But Yalland, having got this date wrong, compounds the error by telling us that Efta members "became signatories to the European Economic Area Agreement" in 1994. The Agreement was signed in 1992 and came into force on that later date.

In effect, this supporter of Mr Boles's plan would have the EEA Agreement negotiated in the impossibly short period of a single year (1991-92) when the more prosaic truth is that Delors in 1989 was responding to an Efta initiative. And this dated back to 13 May 1977 in Vienna.

The formal start of the process which eventually led to the creation of the EEA can be taken to be the Luxembourg Declaration of 1984, which announced an intent to "broaden and deepen" cooperation between the EC and Efta, with the aim of creating a dynamic European Economic Space (EES). The change from EES to EEA came at the end of October 1990, but the change of name was regarded as a "purely linguistic matter" (see footnote 11, p.10).

The significance of the dates highlighted is two-fold. Firstly, the sheer longevity of the period during which the EEA came to fruition illustrates how long it can take to develop and then negotiate complex trade agreements, even between relatively close partners with a long tradition of mutual cooperation.

The second "take-home" point is that, in his Reaction article, the hubristic Yalland purports to offer us a "history lesson". But, when it comes to easily verifiable historical facts, he gets the details wrong. (The history has been admirably recorded in a European Parliament Research Paper completed in 1993, with a shorter overview in my Monograph.)

Details are important, not least because – in this case – they indicate that the UK's path to the EEA as an Efta state might take very much longer than is generally acknowledged. But, as an added bonus, getting the details right in an article confers authority on the author, and builds trust.

Yet, sadly, according to Professor George Yarrow, to demand "perfection" (i.e., the absence of error) is "unwise". After all, he says, 70 percent will get you a first class degree.

This points to a crucial element of the overall Brexit debate – although by no means confined to this issue. In government and politics, in the media and academia, there no longer seems to be a premium on accuracy. Any old tosh will do if it fills the spot, to the extent that a senior academic can dismiss a demand for accuracy in "open book" research as "unwise".

When it comes to the EU, though – and related organisations such as the EEA, the "actors" are prisoners of their history. I've long held that you can never understand the EU, and institutional behaviour, unless you have a good grasp of its history – and not just the hagiography served up on the Commission website.

This is why so many lawyers – to say nothing of politicians – make a pig's ear of evaluating EU politics. Some of them might think they know the procedures, and the details of the treaties – but few of them have troubled to understand the historical background in which they are framed. And that means getting the detail right.

By the same token, only if you understand the history of the EEA – going right back to 1977 and before – can you fully appreciate how it came to be and what, even to this day, drives it. That knowledge will also tell you that the EEA is the perfect home for the UK as an Efta state – and illustrate with devastating precision the opportunity we are missing.

Giving the last word to Booker, though (column not on-line, again!), he in turn cites the words of Winston Churchill, spoken to the House of Commons in March 1938.

"I have watched this famous island descending, incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf", Churchill said. "It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning. But after a bit the carpet ends. A little further on there are only flagstones, and a little further on still, these break beneath your feet".

"Certainly in recent days", Booker concludes, "we have more than ever felt those flagstones breaking beneath our feet. Only the dark gulf remains". This is more true than we could even begin to imagine.