Happy for EFTA After

In recent days there has been a nasty spat of recriminations among former Remainers, some of whom blame others for excessive zeal, making the best the enemy of the good, and pushing us towards the hardest possible Brexit when a more emollient approach might have delivered a much softer Brexit in the form of continued membership of the EU Single Market and a status rather like Norway’s. There’s no doubt that this kind of Brexit would be far, far less damaging than what we’re now likely to get, and it was the kind of Brexit that most people – including those on the Leave side – assumed we would be getting. The fact that we’re not going to Brexit softly, though, is not the fault of Remainers. As I put it on Twitter, such a compromise was never on the table, was never in the gift of Remainers, and it couldn’t have flown given the motivation behind Brexit in the first place. Leaving the EU’s decision-making structures but remaining bound by its decisions would only give legitimacy to the long-standing claims of the anti-Europeans and re-energise Europhobic nationalists. Such a so-called BRINO (‘Brexit in name only’) could not be an end state but had to be a transition towards something harder, and as such merely prolong the entire awful Brexit saga.

I stand by that, but it is yesterday’s fight. Squabbling over what we could or should have done is a waste of time and energy. We have left the EU’s penthouse and we’re heading for the hardest possible landing on the pavement below. Former Remainers, like myself, need to be thinking instead about what comes next. As it happens, I was listening today to the newly-rechristened “Oh God What Now” podcast (formerly Remainiacs) as Ian Dunt made a very good point about the likelihood, even the inevitability, of a re-alignment with EU policies and structures in the coming years, even starting during the lifetime of this government. The laws of gravity still operate, and geography is our best friend. The UK is European, and bound to the European economy, and this is just a fact of life. So bit by bit (at first) we will inch back towards where we were. The next government might well speed this process up by quite a lot. With distance from the national trauma of 2016-2021, it should become less of a Remain v. Leave pitched battle. Eventually, we will approach BRINO from the other end, which I’ve christened MIABNA (membership in all but name, you can say meeyabna if you like, don’t @ me).

If I was so opposed to a soft, EFTA-style option as the outcome of Brexit, why would I be in favour of it looking ahead to some point in the future? For exactly the same reason: I don’t see it as a viable end state. But that works in both directions. When you’re leaving the EU, EFTA is just a stop on the down escalator towards isolation; but when you’re isolated, EFTA is a welcome refuge on the climb back up to full membership. Once we are members in all but name, why wouldn’t we want the name? Why have our decisions made for us by a Council and Parliament in which we’re not represented? That’s how we graduated from EFTA to EEC membership last time around, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t play out the same way again. MIABNA becomes a platform for a grassroots democratic progressive Rejoin movement.

There is a pendulum in politics. As we swing away from EU membership and towards nationalist isolationism, I think a soft Brexit would only have added momentum to that swing. But the harder the swing, the harder the swing back. Soon we will be swinging back from the nationalist extreme. On that return journey, the Norway option/EFTA/EEA/MIABNA will only be a transitional phase, helping us towards our rightful place as members of the European Union.

That’s it, that’s my argument. But, there are two ‘buts’.

But what if the EU doesn’t want us? Well that’s a good point. Right now, the EU would be insane to want the UK back. But we are not talking about right now, we are talking about a fairly distant future prospect, at least two governments away, probably more. That gives the UK time to undertake some serious reform, and it will have to, not just to prepare for eventually applying to rejoin the EU, but simply to survive in the 21st century. But that’s for another blog post.

But what if we don’t progress beyond the Norway option? After all, Norway hasn’t. This, too, is a very good point. We might not. But it’s up to us to make sure that we do. Norwegians themselves think we’d be mad to settle for their status. Personally, I think it would be democratically outrageous to settle for a status where we are bound by rules over which we have no say. However, I have seen how little understood this point is by otherwise informed commentators. The mechanisms that give EEA states a semblance of input to the EU regulatory process are in my view purely there for show, they are not meaningful. Without your nationals in the EU civil service working on policies and proposals, without your national civil servants in the Council Working Groups, without your elected MEPs in the European Parliament, without your nationals sitting in the European Court of Justice, how can you really claim to have a say in those European laws that govern you? This is what needs to be explained to the public so that they understand what’s at stake and choose for the benefits of full membership. Norway’s experience shows that this can’t be taken for granted.

Brexit binaries

Many people in Britain thought the referendum win for Leave was the moment we left the EU. The deed was done, we were out. Many people in Britain think we’re still in the EU, until the moment transition ends. I have no doubt that some people will think we’re still in the EU even if transition ends without an agreement to take its place (‘no deal’ 2.0). This is what happens when you reduce an unbelievably complex relationship to a binary ‘in or out’ question.

Of course, the reality is that Brexit is both a straightforward binary issue – a point in time, a moment before which we were ‘in’ and after which we are ‘out’ – and a complex and elongated process – that began even before the referendum took place, and will not ever really end, for reasons I’m about to go into. This binary reality, if you like, is unpalatable to the simplists who brought us Brexit, which is why they inevitably cornered themselves into arguing for a ‘no deal’ Brexit (both v 1.0 and v 2.0). Their logic (if you can call it that) requires a clean break from the European Union. But not even the absence of an agreement on the future relationship will bring them this, so their dream is by definition unachievable. Although this won’t stop them hurting us all in their vain attempt to achieve it.

Yes, Brexit is binary. It happened on 31 January 2020 at 11pm London time. Before that, the UK was a member state of the European Union. Since then, it is not. Brexit has happened. Brexit got done.

But Brexit is a process. Negotiating then ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement was like pulling teeth, but it was only the first bit of the process, and not the hard bit. We’re currently in the hard bit, which is settling into the future relationship. Part of that is actively negotiating an agreement on the future relationship (or not). But most of it is about settling into the new dynamic and seeing where we end up: they blew it up, now they need to wait to see where the pieces settle. The architects of Brexit do not want to think about this second part, and they don’t want you to think about this second part. Their myth is built upon the notion that the UK can be the master of its own destiny and determine what its future relationship with its neighbours will be – often without reference to those neighbours’ own realities and objectives. So no, Brexit is not done. Brexit is still happening, and will keep happening for a while yet (probably the rest of my life, and I’m in my early 50s).

The two versions of Brexit – binary event, and complex process – do not exist in isolation. Both are true at the same time. They influence each other. The former could not happen until we had reached a certain point in the latter. The latter is fundamentally altered by the former. The process is transformed by the fact that the UK is no longer an EU member state and so falls outside the EU’s decision-making structures. We transitioned from a process where the EU was negotiating its own divorce, the amputation of one of its limbs (an unprecedented and hugely political process), to one where the EU is negotiating an agreement with a neighbouring non-EU member (for which there are many precedents, at least for the EU, and which for the EU is political, yes, of course, but also very technical).

For the UK, the binary simplism of its exceptionalist populists keeps colliding with the complex realities of geopolitics and economics. Always, the former is forced to defer to the latter. Ultimately, the UK will have to choose a reality in which to exist. Where the choice exists, the UK will probably keep choosing the one that fits more closely with its fantasy for as long as the fantasists remain in charge. So they will opt for a looser relationship with the EU. But there will be some kind of relationship, with or without an agreement. The UK sits deep within the EU’s gravity well. The dark side of the moon can look out at the rest of the solar system and ignore the Earth’s existence, but it isn’t going anywhere.

I will now commit the crime of simplism myself (because finding a place for China in this analogy would send us off down an astronomical tangent) and argue that international trade is currently a binary star system, where every country in the world is a satellite of one of the two stellar giants of this system, the United States and the European Union. Some orbit one; some orbit the other; most orbit both; and both orbit each other (indeed, they are the only ones big enough to exert any meaningful pull over the other). Some in the UK think we can fly off into interstellar space and become the centre of our own system, or at least that we can break free to become a third primary in the existing system. We can’t, of course, because we’re simply not that big any more. Most realistic people will understand that we have to orbit either the EU or the US. But even if we choose the US, that doesn’t free us from the gravitational pull of the EU. We are where we are.

Which brings us back to the binary nature of Brexit. The complex celestial mechanics of international trade will carry us eventually to a new stable orbit, wherever that might be, but it won’t be where we began, which is within the decision-making structures of one of the two giants. Since we ceased to be an EU member state, we cease to take part in its decision making, even though we will continue to be influenced by its decisions. And we are never going to be part of the US decision making system. And so if Brexit means anything, if we can take Brexit as both an event and a process and boil it down to its fundamental essence, its ones and zeroes, it has to be this: giving up control.

Incompatible Fictions

I have just started listening to Sapiens, the book by Yuval Noah Harari. I’m finding it engrossing and thought-provoking in the best traditions of popular science writing. Harari argues that the key factor in giving our species, homo sapiens, an advantage over the other human species was the ‘cognitive revolution’, the evolutionary leap that allowed us to conceptualise fiction. This in turn allowed homo sapiens to build more complex societies bound together by shared fictions: mythology, religion, values, laws. Without rehashing his whole argument, in essence we are able to share a bond with other people in our social group, despite not having an intimate relationship with them, because we share in collective fictions: the nation state, our legal system, human rights, Christendom, etc.

This in turn got me to thinking about – of course – Brexit. Here is a short exchange I just had on Twitter with Gawain Towler. (Gawain is Director of Communications for the Brexit Party, and before that for UKIP, and he is one of my few Twitter follows outside my political bubble, because – although I disagree with him on pretty much everything – I do find him an engaging person who debates respectfully.)

Identity has been at the heart of Brexit. Anti-Europeans who could not bear the notion of sharing sovereignty at the European level fought a campaign of attrition over four decades to engineer and then win the 2016 referendum. They could not live with the fact that their society – the political entity with which they identified – had a European element to it. They found that they best way to articulate this discomfort was by claiming that the EU was undemocratic, or anti-democratic. The more the EU sought to address these claims, for example by setting up a European Parliament, giving it real powers, drafting a European Constitution, and so on, the more they resented it. This is because the perceived lack of European democracy was not the real issue. The real issue was that they could not tolerate the very concept of European democracy, or in other words, a European identity. (I wrote about this in my post ‘that demos thing‘.)

And so here we are. But, while these anglo-identitarians have won their battle, the problem hasn’t gone away. Now, instead of a group of anti-Europeans who could not live with what they saw as an unacceptable dilution of their identity, we have a group of pro-Europeans who cannot live with what we see as an unacceptable amputation of our identity. Because the enormous and highly energised Remain movement was not mobilised by the dry utilitarian arguments of David Cameron’s Remain campaign; it came about as an emotional response to Leavers’ assault on our European identities, as should be evident from the way in which the movement chose to identify itself.

So what happens to a society where a significant section of that society no longer shares the fiction that binds that society together? There will always be outliers, people on the fringes who dispute or reject these fictions (freemen-on-the-land types). But when half the country no longer believes in the divine right of kings, or in the union of southern Slavs, etc, well then you have a problem. The thing is, those anti-Europeans who fought that long campaign to leave the EU, they were on the fringe. Having a European tier of government simply wasn’t an issue for the vast majority of people in Britain, until fringe Leavers made it an issue. But Remainers are not on the fringe. 48% of voters in the 2016 referendum do not represent a marginal fringe that can be safely ignored.

Having won, Leavers now preach unity and reconciliation, but they won’t acknowledge Remainers’ grievance because they can’t acknowledge it – they cannot acknowledge our right to our European identities because it is incompatible with the fiction that they see as the indispensible secret sauce binding their society – an exceptionalist UK – together. “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” When half the nation is denied its identity, when the fiction that binds at least half of us is simply edited out of existence, then our society is divided against itself.

Why should the burden be on the Leavers to revise their fiction of an exceptional and sovereign United Kingdom in order to accommodate us Remainers (or whichever label we give ourselves after 1 February)? Surely, as the losing party, we Remainers should revisit the fiction that gives us our identities? Except that’s not how this works. Our fiction, as Europeans, is the complex and multi-tiered one where we enjoy multiple identities and celebrate diversity. Our fiction accommodated theirs; there was nothing stopping them enjoying their British identity within the EU except their refusal to let us enjoy ours. Theirs is the narrow and exclusive one that tolerates no divergence. Our multicolour world includes black and white; their monochrome one is limited to black and white.

LSE Brexit Blog: So Long & Thanks For All The Red Tape

I’ve contributed another piece to the LSE Brexit Blog, this time expanding upon my tweet below which went a bit viral after I spluttered indignantly at David Davis and his disdain for impact assessments.

It’s identity theft

Here is the gist of a semi-impromptu intervention I made in the sleet at the #FinalSayForAll rally  in Brussels on 11 December.

I was radicalised by Thatcher’s Bruges speech. I’m a lifelong advocate of European integration and at times it has felt like a very lonely furrow to plough. I’ve been arguing with anti-EU types for years. In the end, every argument I’ve ever had with an anti-European can be reduced to an argument about identity.

They’ll dress it up in lots of ways – sovereignty, democracy, red tape – in the end, they’ll say: “the EU doesn’t have a demos”. The EU can’t be democratic, however hard it tries, because there is no EU identity. Our identity is illegitimate, they say.

Theresa May says that if we call ourselves citizens of the world then we’re citizens of nowhere. She says that the EU never felt part of our national story. She is wrong!

They lack the imagination and empathy to see that identity is rich and multifaceted. Because they can’t accept a multilayered identity themselves, they want to take away ours! I’m British, I’m German, I’m a Londoner, I’m a Brusselaar, I’m European. They don’t get to take away my identity and they don’t get to take away your identity.

If the referendum has done one thing it is to prove them wrong. Once, speaking out for Europe felt like a lonely undertaking. Not any more. Millions of British people are speaking up and acknowledging their European identities. Where is the European demos? It’s right here!

They rejected the emphatic win for pro-Europeans in the 1975 referendum and they fought for forty years to overturn it with a second referendum. They think we’re going to roll over and let them walk away with this? We’re never going to give up. And it’s not going to take us forty years. If I was radicalised in the 1980s by Thatcher’s Bruges speech, just imagine how our kids are being radicalised by this disgraceful mess. We are not going away, we will get our chance to reverse this, and we’re going to be ready to take it.

Remembrance Day and Brexit

This year, I made this little blue and yellow poppy and posted a photo of it on Twitter. I knew that this might prove controversial and also that some people might take offence. To them, I offer the following arguments:

Marking 11 November as Remembrance Day has a long international history. Many countries mark it. In Belgium, where I’ve lived for many years, it’s a public holiday. It does not ‘belong’ to the Royal British Legion nor to the UK, and I feel it has been appropriated in Britain by people who want to make it about the country’s current armed forces. That’s not what it is to me. To me, Remembrance Day is first and foremost about the awful horror, stupidity, and waste of the First World War. Then, by extension, it’s about the Second World War, and the way European civilisation turned in upon itself in fratricidal conflict. That’s what Remembrance Day is to me, and while I respect other people’s wish to make it about something else, something more than that, or something less than that, I reject their wish to impose their interpretation on me and everyone else. My understanding and experience of Remembrance Day is as valid as and arguably historically more valid than theirs.

Those who serve in the military are public servants who make great sacrifices for their fellow citizens. In the modern era, they are volunteers, so they have chosen this path knowing that it might entail great sacrifice. However you feel about the state’s use of arms to achieve its objectives, I think this choice by individuals is worthy of respect, and I do respect it. Respect that is forced isn’t really respect, though, is it? So-called “poppy fascism” (by which we mean pressure to conform in wearing a poppy) is, I think, fundamentally disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to people who serve in the armed forces because it poisons public debate around their service; it’s disrespectful to those who so pointlessly gave their lives in the First World War; it’s disrespectful to those who gave their lives in the Second World War to fight *actual* fascists, and defend our fundamental freedoms; and it’s disrespectful to all the other public servants who make sacrifices on a daily basis, even if those sacrifices are (thankfully) rarely mortal.

Given my personal views set out in the previous two paragraphs, it can hardly come as a surprise that my understanding of Remembrance Day is intimately bound up with my passionate belief in the European Union. To me, the EU flag is a far more potent symbol of Remembrance than a poppy. To me, Brexit is an offensive act of disrespect for the sacrifice of millions in past European wars. As soon as the idea occurred to me, I felt I had to make this EU poppy and show people that I had made it. This is the very opposite of trivialising Remembrance Day. Brexit trivialises Remembrance Day. And to the author of the Spectator piece who feels that talking about Brexit politicises Remembrance Day, I can only say that Remembrance Day is and always has been profoundly political, and his article only serves to prove that.

Post on the LSE’s Brexit blog: “Going it alone on trade is like bringing a chocolate spoon to a knife fight”

I’ve reworked one of my twitter threads on trade into a post for the LSE’s Brexit blog. I argue that the kind of Brexit being advocated both on the left and the right of British politics is unrealistic given the way international trade works in the modern world. The public are being missold Brexit by both camps. Read the whole thing on the LSE’s site, here.

Play up, play up, and play the game

Michel Barnier has warned the UK that Brexit is not a game. This was in response to Theresa May’s comment in Parliament that “the ball is in the EU’s court”.

Language matters. Tone is important. Ever since the EU referendum and throughout the negotiation process, it seems that everyone on the UK side has been using the language of conflict and confrontation, sport and gaming, winners and losers. This fundamentally colours the UK’s approach to the process, and in my view handicaps us. By seeing this negotiation as a contest, with winners and losers, the UK sets itself up to fail. I’ve already written about this in two posts: Brexit – a negotiator’s observations, and Brexit negotiations – how is the UK doing? To summarise, a confrontational, zero-sum approach rarely makes sense in a negotiation, and never when you are the weaker party, which the UK is.

Why is the UK adopting this unhelpful tone, when there is no need for it, when it is counter-productive, and when the other side would greatly prefer (indeed expected) to do this in a spirit of cooperation? Here, I want to move beyond the tactical aspect and briefly explore a more fundamental cultural question. Because this tone of confrontation is not new in UK-EU relations. I think it is symptomatic of a deeper culture clash between Whitehall and Brussels, Westminster and Strasbourg. It is a cliché that Westminster’s politics, with first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all, government and opposition benches set facing each other a sword’s length apart, is at odds with the continent’s politics, with rainbow hemicycles and Jamaica coalitions, proportional representation, and tiny centrist parties perpetually in government as junior partners. Certainly it is true that people raised in other political cultures find it hard to identify with the martial tone of British politicians and press. When aggressive, conflictual language has had real consequences within living memory, you take more care. In Whitehall, it is normal to think in terms of alliances and enemies: reflexive instructions to “follow the Germans”, antipathy to “Club Med”, not-so-secret away-days with “like-mindeds” from the Netherlands and Denmark; Paris and the Commission as the enemy. Others do this too, of course, but my sense is that no-one revels in it to quite the same extent as the British, nor takes it quite so seriously. Because this is serious, grown-up business. Building Europe is not a game. The nations of Europe once played the Great Game, the result was two world wars.

“Play up! and play the game!”

Hang on Chris, you say, did you not complain bitterly when Theresa May said that the EU never felt an integral part of the UK’s national story? Isn’t this what she meant? Isn’t it true that the UK and the EU are just a bad fit – clashing personalities? Well, dear hypothetical reader, you may have a point there. People like me hoped that membership of the EU would begin to wean the UK off its oppositional approach to politics. We had hoped that forty years spent marinading in the cooperative pickling vinegar of Brussels might transform British politics, take the edge off so to speak. It hasn’t. We knew this when we saw our first attempt at continental-style coalition government fail so dismally. It’s not that the coalition didn’t deliver consensus politics – arguably, it did – it’s that no-one wanted it or understood it. It was too alien for a country tuned to winner-takes-all. Nevertheless, I do not accept that this culture clash meant the experiment was doomed to fail. The EU is made up of 28 countries, all of which have different cultural and historical experiences, and each of those countries is made up of regions with diverse cultures and histories. None of this is a legitimate reason to abandon the experiment of European integration, in fact the opposite: given the conflicts which have arisen as a result of this diversity, integration was essential and remains essential. Integration is perfectly compatible with respect for diversity, and preservation of differences. The point is not to homogenise; the point is to understand, and respect.

Here is a scenario: the British vote, by a narrow margin, to leave the EU. The British parliament decides to respect the result of the referendum and mandates the British government to begin the process of withdrawing from the EU. The government sets up a broad, cross-party panel of senior legislators, judges, and individuals from business and civil society, to prepare a road map for Brexit. Studies are commissioned and published. Proposals are developed which achieve consensus. At every stage, those responsible in government and in the panel carefully consult and inform their EU counterparts, and jointly they determine a way for the UK to leave the EU, respecting the result of the referendum, while minimising the impact on the EU itself and on the UK. That would be how a grown-up country would go about this complicated and sensitive task. But that requires a habit of consensus building and respect for dissenting voices which does not exist in the UK of 2017. So instead we have a chaotic and divisive process framed in a narrative of conflict which is reminiscent of Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers.

Knit for Victory

About 18 months ago I taught myself to knit. It’s something I’d been meaning to do for a long time, I had always seen it as a beautiful craft and a potentially very satisfying creative outlet. With a bit of encouragement and coaching from my sister, I took the first tentative steps, and I quickly fell in love with it as a hobby. It has lived up to all its promise and I’m still completely hooked. Speaking of hooks, this summer I diversified into crochet. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it’s the perfect pastime: creative, contemplative, manual, organic, solitary, but also social.


I’ve previously posted a knitting pattern on this blog. A couple of weeks ago I was asked to knit a pair of socks by a previous happy recipient who wears them in bed. He wants another pair but, he specified, he wants a pair decorated with the EU stars. I duly delivered the first of the pair and at the time of writing I am working on the second. I tweeted a picture of the first and it found its way into the Brexit camp’s echo chamber. They don’t like it. It offends them, and they began queueing up to tell me about it.

“knitting against democracy”

I cannot begin to tell you how gratifying I find this. I knit because I love to, and I knit the EU flag because it’s a way to make a statement, isn’t it? It won’t change the world or reverse Brexit, but it feels good. But oh my God it feels so much better when I know it annoys Leavers!

A number of people on Twitter have asked me for the pattern. This isn’t going to be a pattern as such, but the following should give you all you need to knit these yourself, it’s actually very easy.

It’s based on a standard sock pattern. I got mine from a really good book which I recommend, Knitting Socks by Ann Budd.

Buying a book may be overkill but what I like about this book is that it gives you a basic formula that you can follow for any size sock in any size yarn on any size needles, once you have the gauge. I have the Kindle version on my phone for quick consultation. I also recommend following Youtube tutorials the first time you attempt socks – a very good one I’ve used is the one below.

Once you have your basic sock pattern, then the rest is straightforward. Get your blue and yellow sock yarns (I use Regia 4-ply) , knit a sock as you would normally in a blue yarn but switch to yellow for the heels and the toes (for the toes I do two rows in alternating yellow and blue before switching to just yellow, and I start these at the beginning of the decreases). Then, for the star pattern, at about twelve rows beneath the ribbing I simply do the stranded colour work following the pattern below. Again, Youtube is full of helpful tutorials if you’re new to colourwork.

Sizing can be tricky so it’s important to get the gauge right. I’m using Regia 4-ply sock yarn with 3.5mm needles and 64 stitches in a round, so I have room for 8 stars following the pattern above. It’s relatively simple to adapt the pattern to a smaller sock size either by reducing the number of stars and increasing the space between them, or by adapting the star pattern. Doodling new knitting patterns is what meetings are for, right? There’s also an app for that.

My 64-stitch round on 3.5mm needles gives me a sock that is pretty loose even on my size 11 feet so you might want to go with something smaller. Be careful with the colourwork – if you strand too tightly, your sock will lose elasticity and will be hard to put on; strand too loosely and a toe might get caught in a floater (a ‘floating’ length of yarn in the colour not being used – mitigate this by twisting the two coloured yarns around each other every four or five stitches). Experience is the only way to get this right. Just experiment.

The traditional way to knit socks is on four double-pointed needles (or three if you’re American). I’ve switched to using the magic loop method which I really recommend, it’s a lot quicker and neater.

Obviously, this pattern can easily be adapted to hats or scarves or mittens or gloves or anything else. If creativity strikes, please share your results in the comments.

I’ve put a gallery of my knits up on Flickr, and I intend to keep adding to it. I’d be delighted to hear from other knitters especially the craftivist type.