In the fallout from Chequers, I found myself using words like “independence” and other Farageisms that I’ve previously condemned. This is largely the result of built-up rage at the incompetence of Theresa May’s leadership and what I considered to be a shoddy set of proposals for the Brexit deal. Frankly, I still consider the Chequers plan weak and unworkable, but it does have some merit in its content: it is, at the very least, a plan.
I voted Remain mainly out of caution for the future of the British economy. In other words, I completely bought into “Project Fear”. My position then evolved into accepting the result and ever since I have been determined to see Brexit as an opportunity to be embraced, rather than just as a damage limitation exercise.
Now, thanks mainly to minds much sharper than my own, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only workable, sensible Brexit is the Norway option with caveats. More than that, if neither side is willing to compromise, it has become increasingly clear that we’ll crash out with a “no deal” Brexit.
However, one problem must be immediately addressed: Theresa May must go, and Mayism, in all its state-adoring, enterprise-crushing glory must go with her. But any potential replacement must mirror her approach to Brexit. Despite May’s leadership and philosophical flaws, she has assembled the closest thing that resembles a plan for Brexit so far. Crucially, this plan acknowledges that leaping wildly into the night is suicidal.
I’ve had conversations with Brexiteers recently that have proved that some will never agree with me. It seems the generally-accepted line is: “we won the referendum, come along with us to respect the vote, but don’t you dare question us.” That, quite frankly, ridiculous. Under our parliamentary democracy, which so many Brexiteers revere, the opposition can chair several select committees, propose policy, defeat the government when the mood of the House is with them – certainly, they don’t get shut out of the discussion and told: “put up or shut up”.
Accusations of betrayal and treachery from certain Brexiteers will get opponents of May’s deal absolutely nowhere. We must accept that, in order to deliver a workable Brexit, some concessions must be made.
The Norway Option – membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) – would give us the best possible Brexit, but one that is also practical. We could have an independent trade policy – the EEA does not cover membership of the EU Customs Union. We’d also be outside the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy – which are two of the EU’s worst protectionist mistakes. Perhaps most importantly, negotiations would move quickly because there’s already a framework to follow.
Sure, we would stay inside the single market, but before the referendum, key Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson backed single market membership. In the long history of Euroscepticism, the line was always “economic integration good, political integration bad”. There is no reason why this should have changed so abruptly. Even Daniel Hannan has pointed out that accepting some alignment in goods post-Brexit is inevitable and not undesirable.
On the policy of freedom of movement, the case must be made strongly that immigration is a net benefit for the UK, both culturally and economically – indeed, attitudes to immigration have spiked positively since the referendum. One key point that most miss is that after Brexit, our relationship with the EU isn’t fixed. If accepting free movement of people really became horribly contentious, then there is no reason why we couldn’t renegotiate with the EU and our EEA partners on it. The relationship could continue to shift.
Ultimately, the biggest mistake of May’s Brexit negotiations was triggering Article 50 before she had even the barest bones of a workable plan. Refusing to consider the Norway option could be her next, and potentially final, mistake. Because the EEA option would protect British businesses, ensure a prosperous relationship with the European Union and still allow us to be the liberal, outward-facing country that we vowed to be after Brexit.
I have come to realise that leaving the European Union can be a good thing for the UK. The EU is going down a path of “ever-closer union” that we could never follow, and the Customs Union prevents us from reaping the benefits of freer trade. If done correctly, the UK can be more prosperous and outward-looking. This isn’t about becoming a rule-taker. The UK can have an independent trade policy and leave the political union by pursuing a compromise around which the whole country can unite.