Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street Special adviser where he worked for both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works for Portland, the communications consultancy.
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, once said that life can only be understood backwards but we must live it forwards. This maxim feels particularly relevant when we consider Brexit and the United Kingdom’s end destination.
The great limitation of the Brexit debate, no more so demonstrated than by the shadow boxing of the past week on the UK’s future relationship, is that it has obscured a wider lens on what is happening in the European Union. Over the next five to ten years, the project is likely to experience a number of faultlines on its overall direction.
Against this backdrop, the option of EEA membership – much derided as ‘Brexit in name only’ – can be viewed in a different light.
Rather than being an abject surrender that offers the worst of all worlds, it could actually end up being the smartest place for Britain as a multi-speed Europe emerges; delivering over time on the concerns that drove the vote to leave while avoiding significant economic disruption. It is an especially pertinent option for consideration given that it is an avenue for Brexit that could conceivably command a majority in the Commons next month.
Amidst the inevitable heat of negotiations on the UK’s exit from the EU, there has been a tendency to club all 27 remaining members together. But this is an over-simplification. In reality, the EU can be split into three broad churches.
There are the federalists; principally the French and Germans – mighty members that hold significant influence– who broadly agree that further political integration is the right direction of travel (although they disagree over some aspects). This is given added impetus by the professional bureaucracy of the European Commission.
There are the cautious protectors of sovereignty; including the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and Ireland who are not seriously considering leaving the EU because they feel its economic benefits. But they are uneasy about where political integration is going to end.
And then there is the Eastern bloc of accession countries. Many of these countries are proud defenders of the principles of the nation state as reflected in recent elections. But federalism quietly works for them because of the monetary transfers from West to East that the system implies. I suspect this will shift as their economies develop and they become cautious protectors of sovereignty too.
Predicting exact events and timings is a fool’s errand. But, structurally, it is inevitable that at some point these broad churches conflict, and there is a clarifying moment when the overall direction of travel to federalism is reassessed. Arguably, the loss of the UK’s influence around the table will make this happen sooner rather than later. Flashpoints are possible on issues bubbling away such as common consolidated corporate taxation, mandatory refugee settlement – and of course the development of the Eurozone.
The UK’s potential presence in the EEA could be a determining factor as to what happens next. At the moment, the three non-EU members of the bloc are Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. They are wonderful countries but – with no offence intended whatsoever – they do not have the economic power or diplomatic muscle of the United Kingdom. We are a permanent member of the UN Security Council, one of the world’s largest economies and our history and heritage mean we are a formidable soft power.
If we were to retain membership of the European Economic Area next year then, for all the discussion of becoming a vassal-state, there is the converse point that the status and power of this outer circle of Europe will have markedly increased. Once a clarifying moment on federalism comes down the line, I suspect the attractiveness of joining this bloc will slowly increase for those cautious protectors of sovereignty.
Should a critical mass make the jump, the EEA-only bloc would then likely evolve to become less supplicant in its relationship with the rump EU. As a bloc with heightened economic weight, with the UK as a key influence, it would have greater flexibility to negotiate with the likes of France and Germany over issues such as immigration and budgetary contributions. This would certainly not be ‘Brexit in name only’.
There are of course challenges to this thesis which need to be addressed. First of all, there is the point that, given the UK’s considerable muscle that I have referred to, we could just brazen it out with No Deal or the ‘Canada Plus’ model. In short, these options don’t solve the problem of a hard border with Ireland, and both would be bad for the jobs in the UK economy that depend on frictionless trade.
The issue of free movement clearly needs to be addressed in some form upon our formal exit next year. It is under-remarked that the EEA Agreement gives member states the right to suspend free movement on the grounds of public policy or public security. The threshold for such a case is very high. But it is not beyond the wit of those negotiating such a deal to come up with an appropriate mechanism for the UK, especially if the alternative is years of grinding transition.
Next, there is the reality that under continued membership of the EEA, the United Kingdom would be unable to negotiate meaningful trade deals of its own. But I am strongly of the view that the reality of independent UK trade deals with the tiger economies of the Far East will come to be seen as deeply unattractive if the rubber were to ever hit the road. I am sure that the City of London would be fine. But the people of Sunderland and Port Talbot did not vote for lower tariffs on Chinese manufactured products. Free trade was also never a significant part of historic Tory Euroscepticism.
It is legitimate to question whether I am arguing that MPs should vote down Theresa May’s current negotiated deal in December so this EEA option can be pursued. The Government doesn’t currently have the numbers for its preferred option. But I think the more substantive argument is that, once you strip away all the bluster and political framing, our lengthy transition period with the EU is likely to end up as a form of ‘EEA minus’ existence anyway. On the Chequers version versus my preferred course, you are splitting hairs on the end destination and this is a much cleaner way of getting it done.
Finally, you can argue that this is all likely to take rather a long time – and people want Brexit to feel like Brexit now. To this, I would simply say that the warp and weft of history is clear: revolutions cause a lot of pain, whereas evolution can get you to similar ends without era defining disruption in between. This is a fundamental tenet of the Conservative Party too. We forget it at our peril.