It would be reasonable to assume that, as a non-UK/EU citizen, my favourite outcome of the Brexit exercise would be a flat and prompt revocation of Article 50, or at least the re-run of a referendum. That would be a wrong assumption. While I obviously sympathise with those goals, my preferred solution to the Brexit chaos would be for the UK to remain in a so-called Norway+ agreement, with a short but hopefully educational transitional period of no-deal in between. I will argue this is the only outcome that can, at the same time, 1) respect the result of the referendum; 2) create closure in the debate; 3) favour the development of a stronger and more united EU.
Respecting the referendum as a democratic exercise.
One could debate at length the legitimate nature of the referendum, starting by criticizing the choice for the overly simplistic question that was posed to the public, or dissecting the flaws in the campaigns: fraudulent and conning on one side; lukewarm, hypocritical, and uninspiring on the other. Those would not be arguments, however, able to change the outcome of the referendum. Paradoxically, the main issue the country is facing is not the actual numerical result itself, but the fact that the UK as a whole emerged from this metamorphosis as utterly divided into two factions of almost identical size, bitterly unreconcilable with each other. The geographic division that characterised the result complicates the matter even further menacing the Union of the Kingdom. A second vote may overturn the statistical output – perhaps even by a decent measure – or may reconfirm the same partition but certainly will not cure the underlying division and, if anything, will only exacerbate it. It is irresponsible to claim otherwise. To be able to move on, it is paramount to recognise that the main problem with the Brexit propaganda has been – and still is – a problem of accountability. Political punters exploited a three-decades-long history of Euroscepticism (largely based on straight bananas and similarly silly lies) to incite an angry mob, possibly hoping to get close enough to victory without stepping into the dangerous territory of unrealizable populistic promises. The punters lost their bets and now, if anything, it is the accountability problem we are left to solve. Can a democracy truly function in an environment in which politicians base their entire platforms on empty promises and sheer lies? Independently on what the Brexit outcome will be, it will be important to re-establish political accountability. This may happen through two crucial, cathartic processes: a cultural reform of what we consider “equilibrated reporting” from the media and a reform of the electoral process that does not bind voters into the highly conservative first-past-the-post system. A second referendum would certainly not solve any of these issues and neither the UK nor the EU has an appetite for 30 more years of straight bananas.
Find or create closure.
Cognitive behavioural sciences teach us that it is almost impossible to find closure or even just compromise whenever we argue with a strongly bipolar cognitive bias. The only way to unite two fighting parties is often to show them a common foe. It is difficult to imagine how a leaver and a remainer could compromise or move on. One aspect complicates this matter: the fact that Brexit was sold as a legendary land of Canaan which led many Brexiters to believe that a no-deal transition would bring prosperity. The learned opinion of academics and experts has lost most of its value (those who think this is a modern phenomenon may want to revise the curse of Cassandra in the ancient Greek mythology) and there is only one way to address the distinction between the so-called project fear and project reality. Try it. Some may argue that the price of a no-deal Brexit would be too high a price to pay to simply prove a point. That, I will contend, depends on the timeframe: a final transition to a no-deal would certainly be catastrophic but the educational value of a short no-deal experience may offset its damage. A major consequence of entering the uncharted territory of a no-deal is that it will inevitably terminate the case for “remain” and instead open the case for a “rejoin”. This would be the Arab Phoenix of the EU sentiment in the UK: an extremely welcome and hopeful development of epiphany and rebirth.
The rebirth of the EU.
It is perhaps possible that, as the Prime Minister has once argued, there is no such thing as being “citizens of the world”. Certainly, the same cannot be claimed, however, for being a “Citizen of the EU“, both in legal and philosophical terms. I, for one, do not care and do not feel a strong link to my country of birth but I do care a great deal, however, about the EU – about the political project it represents, about its roots of peace and about its outlook of economic and political prosperity. I would gladly renounce any nationalistic sentiment in favour of the development of a United States of Europe. A Union that is able to address inconvenient issues, such as migration or climate change, with the same decisiveness and sense of cooperation shown on Thursday night at the EUCO meeting. I am aware this sentiment may appear extravagant in this country but research shows that this is not a rare viewpoint in continental Europe and definitely not rare among the younger generation – this latter has been known as the Erasmus effect on European Identity: the sooner we are exposed to the benefits of free movement of people, the more we appreciate its value. I understand why some may oppose this sentiment – I truly do – and in fact, I recognise that the opposition to being part of a United States of Europe was the only strong legitimate reason the leave campaign had on its side. Remain often argued that a United States of Europe should not have frightened us because it would have been impossible with a UK veto. How hurtful and sad this counterargument was! As a fan of the EU project, it was extremely painful to see both sides show fear or skepticism towards Schengen, the Euro currency, or the sheer prospect of a stronger Union. Even freedom of movement is often seen as a necessary evil rather than for what it truly is: a fantastic opportunity. As long as all these aspects will be considered as “negatives” even by remainers, then the UK will certainly be the odd one out and will certainly be better out than in. Juncker’s words proved right: “Brexit is not an amicable divorce but it was never a tight love affair, to begin with” and there is little doubt we will all be better off with a looser connection. How loose, though?
The Norway+ option.
In her recent and most vitriolic speech, Theresa May claimed that voting the withdrawal agreement would be the best way for the country to move on to other matters and be done and dusted with the Brexit debate. How wrong she is. The virtue and scope of the withdrawal agreement are to guarantee a smooth transition to the next phase, towards a final interaction that is only roughly and faintly drafted in the current political declaration. As matters currently stand, there is nothing in that document that indicates the future ahead will be simpler and less exhausting than what we just experienced. If anything, the opposite is true: the UK needs to maintain access to the Customs Union to satisfy the Good Friday agreement and needs to maintain access to the Single Market for economic and regulatory reasons. Actions should have proven adamantly that the EU is truly not willing to fragment those two pillars to create an “a la carte” menu. Of course, the future Prime Minister may want to try their best effort, but it should be clear by now that this will be a titanic task. The UK does not hold the cards. The UK does not even have cards and there is nothing to be ashamed of. No single European country can pick a fight with the EU and this is the first and most important strength of the EU and the most important advantage of being part of it. Would anyone ever consider that the UK could pick a fight with the USA and win? Certainly not. Then why should things be any different with the EU as negotiation partner, a Union that has a similar population and an even larger market?
Let’s really accept reality on all sides and move on. We can certainly adopt the Norway+ scheme after having tried a bit of the no-deal bitter pill. Of course, the easiest and least painful way to get there is by changing the political declaration and stating loud and clear that the United Kingdom will join the European Free Trade Area and the EEA, and adhere to the Customs Union. After that small amendment, the House of Commons can sign the Withdrawal Agreement as is, without fearing the backstop trap. Theresa May would be happy because her agreement will have passed; the Parliament will be happy because they would have ceased the impasse; the economy will not suffer by maintaining full access to the Single Market; EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU will still enjoy free movement rights; the country will truly move on to other matters; the EU will lose their most eurosceptic gear and will gain the chance to grow stronger and closer.
Sure, the UK will lose political representation in Brussels but something’s gotta give.