LONDON – Now that Britain has a much weakened Conservative government, still with more parliamentary seats than the main Labour opposition but with only a precarious ascendancy over all the other parties in Parliament together, what are the prospects for Brexit — the process of British disengagement from the European Union?
One point about which to be clear is that there is no going back. The recent general election has confirmed that the vast majority of the population wants the withdrawal process to continue in one form or another.
One other clear point is that the prospect of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom has greatly receded.
But there the agreement and the good news end. A cacophony of voices can be heard suggesting different ways of conducting the disengagement, different negotiating aims and different outcomes.
Some want a change of tone and some want a shift of priorities, notably away from concern about control of immigration and toward getting the best deal for industry and business. Some want Britain to stay inside the EU single market and the EU customs union at all costs. Others insist that the prize should be regaining full sovereign control of the lawmaking process and having the freedom to strike new trade deals with other great consumer markets round the world.
So the question boils down to the core issue of whether all these disparate voices can somehow be combined in an overall strategy that unites opinion on the British side and is agreeable to the 27 other member states of the EU on the other side, and to the European Commission in Brussels, which is going to lead the negotiating procedure.
One promising way of making progress would be to present the whole exercise as unfolding in a series of stages, as an extended process over the years ahead rather than as a finite package of agreements neatly parcelled up in a deal for delivery by a fixed date.
Instead of rushing to reach a comprehensive “divorce” settlement in the allotted two years allowed under the existing treaties, it could simply be agreed to move on to a transition or provisional phase from which further arrangements could evolve. No one would be entirely content with this kind of “one step at a time,” but those looking for an eventual clean break with the EU, a so-called hard Brexit, could feel they were still on their way toward it, while those wanting to stay as close to the EU as possible, with a so-called soft Brexit, could feel that things might turn in their direction. They could also take comfort from the old adage that “nothing lasts like the provisional.”
There is also the point that two or three years from now, as the digital and communications revolutions plunge ahead, no one really knows what shape a turbulent Europe will be in or what the right kind of relationship with Britain should be.
What would this next staging-post phase in the EU relationship look like? One model with many attractions has recently been put forward by former British Foreign Secretary, David Owen, now in the House of Lords.
Owen points out that the entity called the European Economic Area, embracing the whole EU plus a small number of associated but nonmember states, might provide a good temporary resting place for Britain. He points to its considerable flexibility and draws attention to the crucial details of the original 2007 EEA Agreement, to which the U.K. is a contracting party, that specifically leaves room for amendment, should the need arise.
This clearly allows both national intervention in immigration controls on all sorts of grounds, as well as freedom to pursue trade agreements with other countries, such as America, India or Japan — both conditions on which the British government and Prime Minister Theresa May set great store and on which there can be no backing down. It also permits extensive tariff-free trade with the EU itself without demanding involvement in a full customs union.
Furthermore the rulings of the European Court of Justice, so disliked by the British, have no locus over EEA countries , while all trading regulations coming from Brussels are subject to strict national and sovereign parliamentary control in EEA states.
This would be in stark contrast with the present pattern by which EU legislation can be translated straight into English law.
There could also be a financial benefit for Britain. Although the EEA countries — at present Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein — agree to contribute something toward total EU funds and toward helping the poorer corners of Europe, it could prove to be somewhat less than the heavy divorce settlement at present facing the British, said to be anything up to €100 billion, although possibly somewhat less.
Could there be general agreement between the warring factions on this next halfway-house kind of step? And would the rest of the EU welcome it? If the British aim is an eventual clear disassociation from the EU that minimizes disruption, an amended EEA seems the obvious transitional status for a few years, until the time is ripe for Britain, and the whole EU as well, to transform into what may well prove to be completely new configurations in an ever-faster changing digitalized world.
Finally, some circles hope that the politicians at Westminster might put the whole issue above party and are calling for an independent commission to guide the Brexit process to its next stage. But that may be going too far. The British love debate and the cut and thrust of party battle, and besides, it greatly helps the media sell their wares.
All the same, the national mood is for the newly elected politicians to bury their differences and get on with it — both in the interests of Britain and, indeed, of the whole of Europe.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.