Brexit negotiations have begun at last. Ninety-eight British negotiators showed up for the Battle of Brussels, ready to go and smiling for the cameras – or were most of them extras hired from Pinewood Studios? We simply don’t know how ready the Government is. It seems likely that we’re in for months of pointless argument. We don’t want to spend too much of our time writing (or your time reading) endless repetitions of topics we’ve explored already so we will reduce our output for a while until something definite happens. This may be just a brief weekly summary but be assured that our commitment to a proper Brexit is undiminished and we will return to fight when the current interregnum ends.
It is worth briefly noting what happened to Greenland at this stage of its withdrawal (our quotations are drawn from the Daily Telegraph report: Business Section, 15 July 2017). The process took three years from 1982 following a referendum – won by the Leavers by 53% to 47%, not too different from the UK result. This was before Article 50 limited the negotiation period to only two years. Greenland had relatively few contentious topics to agree (mainly fishing rights) and had Denmark’s help from inside the EU camp.
Mr Vesterbirk, Greenland’s chief negotiator, recalls:
“For a long, long period it was a stalemate because all parties were talking in opaque terms. We were sitting in Brussels talking through interpreters and even they were saying things didn’t make sense. Nobody understood a word. The Germans were the best at it, for months they spoke in tongues. You could almost say their words were not hanging together. It was a farce. We lost our temper and our patience, to the point where we decided we just wanted to get out, even if there was no fisheries deal.”
Lars-Emil Johansen, then Greenland’s business minister, said:
“The Danish government at the time was very pro-European, but they also respected the Greenlandic choice of opting out … There was not a feeling of time pressure. It was important that both sides signalled a wish for continued co-operation. That made negotiations easier.”
In the end the deal agreed was not dissimilar to the terms before withdrawal, including continuing fishing rights for EU countries for which Brussels agreed to pay.
Mr Johansen said in response to the doom-mongers: “In Greenland we know all about economic predictions. If we were to listen to all of them, I think Greenland would have gone bankrupt many times.”
Mr Vesterbirk doesn’t expect the UK will get a quick deal. “Fishing rights alone will be a very difficult negotiating topic, and the UK has so many more. It will take at least 10 years to leave.”
In summary then, withdrawal has been good for Greenland but was a much simpler process than we face; we can expect all the problems and little of the help. There has been much discussion of simplifying and hastening things by taking an EFTA/EEA route. We’re OK with that as part of a phased withdrawal but there needs to be a timetable. With a “weak and wobbly” government and an opposition comprising mostly “Softies” (soft-Brexit seekers) we fear we’ll be left permanently somewhere around the Fourth Circle of Hell, hoping Hell itself will evaporate without causing us too much harm.
According to a new study by researchers at King’s College London, immigration is not such a big issue with the British public which is now mostly happy with the Norway option.
“We asked people to make choices, and trade-offs, between hypothetical options for a Brexit deal, to elicit their preferences. … Our approach enabled us to also assess the relative strength of people’s preferences for each attribute of a Brexit deal…”
The authors contrast their methodology with that of more usual polling, arguing that their approach is more rigorous and free from the distortions, such as social pressures, that may have resulted in the less than accurate results of recent polls.
“What we found contradicts some of the received wisdom about the Brexit vote. The outcome of the referendum has been interpreted by many as a decisive rejection of the UK’s approach to immigration. But our research showed that, for the public, restricting freedom of movement is not as important as the ability to make trade deals and retain single market access. In fact, it was not restrictions on freedom of movement per se that people cared about the most – their desire for such constraints seemed to stem from concerns about pressure on public services.”
It has been widely argued that a high proportion of those who voted Leave in the Referendum did so because of xenophobic antagonism to immigration. The authors conclude that this is, at best, misleading; we conclude that it is slanderous.
“One of several key findings from our research was that, given how much value the public place on the UK making its own trade deals and having access to the single market, they would prefer to have a relationship with the EU similar to that of Norway. This allows for free trade with other countries, while remaining within the single market and accepting freedom of movement and some loss of sovereignty to EU institutions, such as the European Court of Justice.”
We have argued that a possible interim arrangement would be for the UK to join EFTA and remain in the European Economic Area (EEA). This combination is what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Norway option’. We don’t agree that this would be a satisfactory long-term arrangement, because of the remaining restrictions that the EU would impose, notably subjugation to the remit of the ECJ. But, provided the UK government remained determined to shed unnecessary EU impositions, it would provide a better interim outcome than moving directly to ‘third country status’ in March 2019.