Image Credit: Hugo A. Sanchez/Gulf News
One thing was missing from Britain’s referendum debate over Europe: Europeans. Britons argued and wrestled for months over the nature of their relationship with the continent, while the continent remained silent.
That was partly out of tact on their part. Europe’s politicians understood that so much as a raised eyebrow in the wrong place would have been interpreted as unacceptable meddling in British affairs and played straight into the hands of the Brexiteers. So they confined themselves to vague statements of affection and repeated the formula that this was a matter for the British people to decide. Now that the decision is in, that restraint no longer applies. Via a survey conducted by Bloomberg, the other 27 member-states of the European Union (EU) have been vocal in conveying the terms on which they would allow a post-Brexit Britain privileged, preferential access to the single market.
The bottom line is that Britain will have to accept free movement of people: Put simply, if the United Kingdom wants to sell its goods and services into the single market on favourable terms, its European neighbours will demand it accept unlimited migration of EU citizens.
Back then, Britons blithely talked about the Norway model, sometimes tweaking it as if it were solely up to Britain to decide. According to Bloomberg, France will be especially hardline.
If British Prime Minister Theresa May merely seeks “passporting rights” for UK banks — so that financial services have premium access to the single market, even as the rest of the British economy does not — the price will be free movement.
That’s quite a contrast with what some of the Leave folks were promising during the referendum campaign, when the likes of Boris Johnson were sunnily insisting that Britain could both have its cake and eat it too — that it could leave the EU, ditch free movement and carry on trading with the single market as freely as before. After all, the Brexiteers declared that the Europeans needed Britain far more than Britain needed them, and they would soon be falling over themselves to give Britain a perfect deal, granting it all the benefits of EU membership and none of the costs.
Just as breezily, some Leavers told the British public that there would always be the Norway option to fall back on. If the worst came to worst, Britain could simply join the European Free Trade Area and, along with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, get full access to the single market, without being part of the EU. Remainers countered that if Britain did that, it would still be bound by EU rules, though now it would have no say in drafting them, but that was swatted aside.
Yet, now it emerges that even that Norway option may not be available.
“It’s not certain that it would be a good idea to let a big country into this organisation,” Norway’s European Affairs Minister, Elisabeth Vik Aspaker, told the Aftenposten newspaper. “It would shift the balance, which is not necessarily in Norway’s interests”. Both these interventions, with the Europeans offering their view of how Brexit might play out, have been a useful reminder of something that was too often forgotten during the in-or-out campaign: It’s not all about Britain.
Back then, Britain blithely talked about the Norway model, sometimes tweaking it as Norway-plus or Norway-minus, as if it were solely up to Britain to decide. It chose to forget that when it comes to the UK’s relationship with Europe, there is more than one party. That’s why it’s called a relationship: There are other people involved. In case of the EU, there are at least 27 other parties involved, each with a veto. The Bloomberg survey makes clear that post-Brexit negotiations will be a game of 27-dimensional chess.
May won’t be able to simply stitch together a deal with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She’ll have to accommodate, say, Spain’s wish for joint sovereignty over Gibraltar or Denmark’s desire for reciprocal fishing access. The eastern European states will demand that Britain make a financial contribution to the EU in return for privileged single-market access. And on it will go, times 27.
The irony is that, once this process begins in earnest, once the horse-trading and haggling gets under way, Britain will begin to see what the best possible deal will look like. It will have a sense of the ideal arrangement — one that will give Britain free access to the single market, a say over the rules and a sharply-reduced membership fee. Britons will keep their fingers crossed and hope their European neighbours are generous enough to grant it. What kind of an arrangement will it be? Why, the one Britain had on its hands — right until June 23, 2016.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Jonathan Freedland is a weekly columnist and writer for the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and presents BBC Radio 4’s contemporary history series, The Long View. In 2014, he was awarded the Orwell Special Prize for Journalism. He has also published eight books, including six bestselling thrillers, the latest being The 3rd Woman.