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.