LONDON – After two years of non-stop sound and fury over Brexit, a weary truce is emerging in Britain. As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, it will be a Norway future that seems the most likely destiny.
True, the “remain” campaigners have not quite given up hope that some major crisis — like an announcement from foreign firms they are pulling out of Britain — will produce a giant reversal of public opinion and lead to a new referendum that could reverse the decision of June 2016.
The “leave” enthusiasts, for their part, are plain exhausted. They have been worn down by the sheer complexity and potential economic damage caused by their “vision” of a total British amputation from the EU after March 2019.
There is not a single agreement in place between London and Brussels on what the future economic relationship with the EU should be.
For the leavers, the supreme prize is to be out of the EU Treaty and thus proudly restore the sovereignty of the House of Commons. For the remainers, the goal is now to limit the damage and maintain as close a relationship as possible to Europe. They hope that, once the passions of the Brexit plebiscite become history, the U.K. can quietly rejoin the EU.
A political Ebola virus
Brexit has been like a political Ebola virus. It has drained British politics, government and state administration of their life juices as the only question remains, Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.
Both Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn look exhausted. They are unable to say anything interesting when questioned about Brexit on television.
May cannot bring herself to say that Brexit will be good for Britain. Corbyn cannot bring himself to support an open market EU with rules enforcing competition. Both leaders are in their 60s and look as if they have aged 10 years since the Brexit vote in 2016.
For the time after Brexit, May originally laid down a number of red lines that should not be crossed in the negotiations with Brussels that began a year ago. However, she has surrendered her position on most key points.
Make no mistake about it: The EU’s Franco-German negotiating team of Michel Barnier and Sabine Weyand have comprehensively out-negotiated the British ministers and officials.
The EU27 and Brussels have been united in insisting that the U.K. could not be given special privileges or a unique status. Either the U.K. was in or it was fully out. That, to them, is Britain’s sovereign choice.
British ministers blustered and insulted Barnier, but the French former minister and commissioner remained cool, unflappable, polite but firm. Those are the very qualities once associated with British diplomacy — and they won the day.
Barnier has met May and Corbyn (and even Nigel Farage) and gave them all the same message: The U.K. cannot have its cake and eat it too. Finally, that message appears to have got through.
The place where May and Corbyn can meet in the middle is this: First, accept that the U.K. will cease to be an EU member state. Second, seek to hold out for an arrangement based on obeying all single market rules.
The European Economic Area
The main House of Commons Committee on Brexit has just produced a report agreed by both Conservative and Labour members of parliament laying out 15 tests that have to be met for any U.K. Brexit deal to be acceptable to a majority of MPs. The Committee says that the U.K. joining the European Economic Area (EEA) would meet these tests.
This is where Norway is after the Norwegians rejected joining the EU in a referendum in 1994, but stayed on as an EEA member. Norway is a member of the Single Market and obeys all EU rules as well as paying substantially into the EU budget.
Britain is bigger than Norway and its economy is very different. However, the underlying principle of political separation, but economic and regulatory integration on the basis of EU norms and laws remains the same.
May and Corbyn can live with Britain becoming a big Norway, a country everyone in England likes and admires. The question is: Can their followers?
Following EU rules and paying contributions as if in the EU will outrage the Tory Europhobe right. But most leavers and especially business can accept they have won the big prize — taking back control of U.K. sovereignty from Brussels.
There may be explosions but a divided fractious Tory Party helps propel their hated, despised foe, Jeremy Corbyn, to power.
For Labour, Corbyn can say he has helped defeat UKIP and the fanatical Brexit ideologues especially in the off-shore owned press which torments his every waking moment. He can claim he has helped save jobs and wages threatened if a total Brexit happens.
It is not a final settlement and the prospect of Brexiternity — Brexit remaining the dominant issue in Britain for years to come — lies ahead.
But the Norwegian compromise will allow an outbreak of peace over Brexit though no-one can rule out sudden surprises that can yet produce a “no deal” car crash version of Brexit or in the dreams of remainers a sudden awakening that it is all a disaster and should be abandoned.
Denis MacShane, a contributing editor at The Globalist, was the United Kingdom’s minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005. www.theglobalist.com