MPs should re­alise all roads lead to Nor­way

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Si­mon Jenk­ins

From the mo­ment Bri­tain voted for Brexit in 2016, there was only one way to go. It was back to the Euro­pean Free Trade As­so­ci­a­tion (Efta), of which the UK was a mem­ber be­fore 1973. Noth­ing else made sense. The vote to leave had to be hon­oured. It was doable. But to aban­don the cus­toms union and sin­gle mar­ket was not doable. It was reck­less. I as­sumed – and was told – that from day one, Theresa May’s ne­go­ti­at­ing of­fi­cials were of the same mind. So too were the ma­jor­ity of MPs and the drift of pub­lic opin­ion, when­ever polled. All were against hard Brexit and in favour of vary­ing ver­sions of the sin­gle mar­ket, in other words the “Nor­way” model.

But May scup­pered any hope of co­her­ing such a coali­tion, by ap­point­ing hard­line min­is­ters to the Brexit brief and then giv­ing in to them with her red lines in the ill-judged Lan­caster House speech in 2017. In­stead of talk­ing the lan­guage of com­pro­mise, which she must have known she would later have to do, she nar­rowed her room for ma­noeu­vre.

Any deal to take the UK out of the EU’s cus­toms union was go­ing to founder on the North­ern Ire­land ques­tion. It is ge­o­graph­i­cally part of Ire­land, an EU coun­try. If the UK wants its own sep­a­rate cus­toms ar­range­ments, a bor­der must be de­clared some­where. You can­not square a cir­cle. That is why the EU’s le­gal po­si­tion on the deal is un­der­stand­able. If Bri­tain wants an open bor­der within Ire­land, it must say where its new­found sovereignty be­gins, pre­sum­ably in the Ir­ish Sea. In other words, stay­ing in the cus­toms union was al­ways the only way. The Demo­cratic Union­ist MPs know this per­fectly well – which is why, if they vote against May next week, no one should ever trust their word again.

De­spite May not even try­ing to mo­bilise what would be a Com­mons ma­jor­ity in sup­port of the cus­toms union, MPs must see that she has, in ef­fect, kept the cus­toms union op­tion open un­der her tran­si­tional deal. That the hard Brex­iters so fear it should give the soft Brex­iters – and re­main­ers – gen­uine com­fort. The real ne­go­ti­a­tions on a Nor­way deal only be­gin in April.

The last time Nor­way hov­ered over the House of Com­mons was after its in­va­sion in 1940. This de­feat for the al­lies split the Tory party and felled its leader, Neville Cham­ber­lain. His demise was the price de­manded by Labour for a na­tional coali­tion. If May loses the vote next week, a re­run of 1940 is eerily pos­si­ble.

She would have to en­gi­neer a sec­ond vote. She could des­per­ately go to Brus­sels and seek some cos­metic eas­ing of the “back­stop get-out”. The noises from the EU on this are pes­simistic, but it would be a po­lit­i­cally sen­si­ble move. And/or she might dis­cuss with op­po­si­tion par­ties a Com­mons grand com­mit­tee, to reach an agreed mo­tion for a sec­ond vote.

If May won a sec­ond vote, she would be safely through to March. If she lost, she would ei­ther re­sign or of­fer her­self up for party re-elec­tion, as John Ma­jor did in the sum­mer of 1995. The lat­ter she might win, her MPs know­ing that top­pling her would mean a vote of no con­fi­dence and prob­a­ble gen­eral elec­tion. A fu­ri­ous elec­torate might not like that.

I still see only one sen­si­ble con­clu­sion emerg­ing, one that re­flects the bald fact that nei­ther the pub­lic nor most MPs want the UK to leave Europe’s sin­gle mar­ket. Par­lia­ment’s task will be to find a way of say­ing so. For an off­shore is­land to cut it­self adrift from “fric­tion­less trade” with its main­land is gross self-harm. Un­scram­bling half a cen­tury of col­lab­o­ra­tion with an ever more in­te­grated Europe is point­less. The lob­by­ists are not all fear­mon­gers – they are from busi­ness, in­dus­try, the po­lice, the NHS, the care sec­tor, science, uni­ver­si­ties and tourism. They plead unan­i­mously with MPs to keep the UK in the com­mu­nity of Europe.

Some ob­jec­tions to Efta/Nor­way are footling, that it would “have to be per­ma­nent” and it in­volves “vas­salage”. All trade deals are tem­po­rary and their terms are a func­tion of power, as Don­ald Trump is show­ing. The idea that Bri­tain would be “rule-mak­ing” in trade with the US is ab­surd. Ask China. Changes in mi­grant rights un­der the sin­gle mar­ket would need rene­go­ti­at­ing, but such changes are hap­pen­ing across Europe. The free­doms of the sin­gle mar­ket make sense. No hard Brex­iter has been able to quan­tify any ben­e­fit from “mak­ing deals with the rest of the world”.

Nor­way is not ideal, but it is work­able. It is the topic of dis­cus­sion wher­ever rea­son­able MPs gather to­gether. Europe’s eco­nomic area is where Bri­tain will one day forge new links with a re­or­gan­ised Europe. The ques­tion is how much blood is spilled in the process.

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