Richard North, 09/08/2016  

As I was rather keen to point out at the time, not one of the IEA's six prizewinning entries in its €100,000 Brexit competition entertained the idea of the "Efta/EEA option" – often called the "Norway Option".

Still less did they accept the idea in my submission of Flexcit, the core feature of which was to go for Efta/EEA as an interim option, using it to buy time for further negotiations for a longer term solution for our trading arrangements with Europe.

I had written: "we are not advocating the 'Norway Option', per se, but something entirely original. In short, our solution to 'Brexit' is 'FLexCit' – FLexible response and Continuous development, a process rather than an event. That is the essence of our submission".

Had the IEA embraced Flexcit in early 2014, it would have have been ahead of the game as the only London-based think tank with a coherent view of how to leave the EU. Potentially, it could have dominated a generally fact-free referendum campaign.

Instead, it rejected anything which even offered an Efta/EEA solution. From nearly 150 entries and an initial shortlist of 17 papers, all six finalists submitted "EFTA-only" options. All of them, including the first prize entry, have disappeared without trace, contributing nothing to the current debate. The exercise was  – a complete waste of donors' contributions.

Having excluded itself from the pre-referendum debate, however, the IEA is now making up for lost time. It is engineering a salami-slicing bid to take ownership of Flexcit, the option it so contemptuously rejected back in 2014 but which is now emerging as the only workable option for a low-risk exit.

Even then, the IEA has been slow coming to the party. Having made a total mess of their Brexit competition, it was left to Philip Booth, their editorial and programme director, to salvage something from the wreckage with the publication in February 2015 of a book setting out four possible paths for Brexit.

Although Robert Oulds was recruited to write about the "Norway Option", the idea of using it as an interim solution had not yet penetrated the corporate brain. And, with nothing to offer of any great worth, this publication also disappeared without trace.

Lacking any corporate view on leaving or staying in the EU, the IEA was all over the place in the run-up to the referendum. In a contribution to the debate at the end of March 2016, it had Dalibor Rohac writing: "I used to be a eurosceptic. Here's why I changed my mind".

The world, he told us, appears to be a more dangerous place than at any other time in my memory. Brexit would shift the focus of British politics away from these strategic threats to parochial efforts aiming at reaching a decent trading and political settlement. That struck him as a risk that would require "a much more compelling justification than the one currently provided by the Leave campaign".

Nearly a month later, Diego Zuluaga gave his reasons "Why we must remain in the EU". Brexit, he said, offers the prospect of some marginal, but hardly compelling, improvements in trade and regulation. But, we were told, "this will likely come at the expense of deep commercial ties to Europe, a highly beneficial open immigration regime, and effective constitutional barriers against harmful economic policy". Taking these points into account, Zuluaga concluded, "leaving the EU is no longer an attractive proposition".

On 18 April, the IEA published a book by Patrick Minford & J R Shackleton entitled Breaking up is so hard to do. This had Minford arguing that the use of Article 50 was optional and that the UK should be prepared for a unilateral withdrawal, "setting up alternative international and regional treaty arrangements that do not involve the EU or require its consent".

In a footnote, Minford referred to suggestions that the UK would retain its membership of the EEA after EU exit or that it would revert to Efta membership it enjoyed before joining the EEC in 1973. "Both of these are misconceptions", he said, "without any legal foundation".

A few days later though, on 26 April, staff member Ryan Bourne was proclaiming: "Let's hear the positive economic case for Brexit", and suggesting that the impact of leaving had been greatly exaggerated. Dr Kristian Niemietz, head of the IEA's health and welfare unit, then took a hand, writing on 5 May 2016 of his own part in "Breaking up", under the heading of: "Brexit and Bremain: the devil and the deep blue sea.

In as somewhat incoherent intervention, Niemietz wrote of "inners" and "outers" talking about the EU when they really meant the EEA, or EFTA, or Schengen, or the Eurozone, or just international cooperation in general. As a result, he said, "the EU receives a great deal of praise, and a great deal of blame, for things which are not actually the result of the EU as such".

On 12 May, however, Niemietz was back, writing, "an unenthusiastic case for Brexit" in which he argued that, "Brexit will probably do no harm, but it may not do much good either". When in doubt, he wrote, "I err on the side of the smaller political unit, which is why I back Brexit nonetheless".

The day before the referendum, on 22 June, the IEA produced another book, this one entitled: "Making the Pieces Fit: Reforming Britain's relationship with the EU", by Philip Booth and Ryan Bourne.

Looking at the possibilities for leaving the EU, the pair observed that, joining the EEA would be one, apparently oblivious to the fact that the UK is already in the EEA. This, they said, brings with a repatriation of some powers, but does not fully restore control across a range of economic areas. Thus, they concluded: "To realise the true gains from Brexit, the EEA must, in these circumstances, be very much a transitional arrangement".

Thus, for the first time since Booth had been confronted with Flexcit nearly two years previously, two staff members were coming to the same conclusion: [continued] membership of the EEA must be "transitional" – it must be an interim option. There was, however, no acknowledgement that the IEA has already rejected this idea, with Booth having been on the judging panel. Still less was there any reference to Flexcit.

At this point, one might argue that the IEA is perfectly entitled to pursue the line of the EEA as an interim option, except that the idea did originate in Flexcit and it has subsequently been heavily promoted on the EU Referendum blog . They knew full well the source of the idea.

Furthermore, the idea of the Efta/EEA option as an interim solution doesn't stand alone. For it to be credible, it must be part of a phased exit plan, a process rather than an event, with an identified end point. This makes the idea an original concept, one that the IEA did not originate and did not own.

In a piece the day after the referendum, however, Kristian Niemietz told us that the work was just beginning. But he didn't mention the EEA at all. But then, on 29 June, Sophie Sandor wrote for the IEA saying that we must ensure we remain in the European Economic Area (EEA) only to have, a day later, Ryan Bourne tell us that EEA membership "is not a sustainable proposition".

Then, on 14 July, Niemietz intervened with a piece headed: "Saving Brexit from the Brexiteers: why free-market liberals should support the Efta/EEA option". With the irony meter needle bending against the stop, he asserted that Efta/EEA was the option that free-market liberals should now bang the drum for, "at least as a short-to-medium-term solution".

There was an active link in the sentence, which took the reader straight to Flexcit, although the plan was not named. Nevertheless, Niemitetz was finally acknowledging the source of the only definitive plan which is recommending Efta/EEA as an interim option.

The 18 July the saw Simon Barnett write for the IEA endorsing the Efta/EEA option, clearly borrowing research work from Flexcit to support his case, but without the courtesy of an acknowledgement. Lifting material from other people's work without attribution is, apparently, acceptable practice in the IEA.

In the meantime, the Adam Smith Institute was playing a similar game, lifting work from Flexcit in such a brazen manner that it was indistinguishable from plagiarism. Prime mover, Roland Smith, had a limited license from us to promote the idea of Flexcit without attribution of the source, but crossed the line by passing the work off as his own.

Now Kristian Niemietz lent his name to the plagiarism, claiming co-authorship of what amounted to a badly-butchered version of Flexcit in an ASI Briefing Note. Another of the co-authors was Ben Kelly, a Leave Alliance blogger, who claimed he was not told his name would be added to the note.

Nevertheless, Ryan Bourne wasn't buying it the EEA pitch, arguing on the IEA blog on 20 July for unilateral free trade. To maintain current arrangements, he argued for "some (unspecified) sort of deal". This would be sub-optimal, he said, but may be politically sensible as a transitional arrangement.

But now the IEA had seduced Ben Kelly to take the role of useful fool, his turn to bang the Efta/EEA interim option drum. This was Flexcit in all but name. Kelly even stole whole sentences directly from the Flexcit book, unchanged. In accordance with the IEA kleptocracy manual, though, there was no attribution.

Slowly, gradually, slice-by-slice, the very plan that the IEA had rejected is becoming one of its core possessions. Theirs is a classic example of how you steal intellectual property. First, you detach it from the originators. Then you get people used to the idea as a generic concept. Then you gradually assert it as your own, having your own writers pass themselves off as the originators.

The real irony is that the IEA could have had the work, gratis. But, too embarrassed to admit their errors and their gross mismanagement of the Brexit competition , they now have to steal the work to call it their own. That's the way things are done in the SW1 bubble. And whatever excuses they have for their behaviour, it's still theft.

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