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Brexit: there was a solution

2020-11-18 07:08:54

The Financial Times has been having great fun with its rediscovery of a largely forgotten pamphlet published in June 2016, just before the referendum, featuring a piece by David Frost, then CEO of the Scotch Whisky Association and now the UK's lead negotiator in the current EU talks.

Gleefully, the FT's political editor, George Parker, writes about Frost warning that in trade talks with the EU that "it will be Britain that has to make the concessions to get the deal", making great play of this factoid.

What Parker doesn't do though is mention a trenchant section in the pamphlet from Frost where he offers his recommendations if he were "a UK negotiator", suggesting that we "think hard about a transition via a Norway-type arrangement, if only as a staging post".

"Exit from the EU to a Norway model", Frost says, "is probably the easiest thing to negotiate, because the model already exists, it would be hard to refuse us, and Britain would keep access to the single market and apply single market legislation".

"It could", he continues, "plausibly be done within two years. It would therefore enable UK negotiators to focus in the short run just on third-country trading arrangements, i.e. moving from the EU’s FTAs to the UK's own, probably via some kind of transitional arrangements".

But what I missed at the time – and so evidently did Parker – is a piece Frost wrote just after the referendum, on 30 June, which goes even further. This, interestingly, is in the Telegraph, with the headline: "Don't panic, here's how Brexit can make Britain can be a great trading nation". The solution, he writes:
It is to go for Norway status for now, but explicitly as a transitional arrangement. We should say that we intend, after exit, to retain this status for say five years and to use that period to reflect and if necessary negotiate a Free Trade Agreement like Canada's, if that is what we want to do, or to keep Norway status if we don't.

The advantages are that it's an off the shelf option with a largely pre-written Treaty, so politically can hardly be refused to us. It keeps us part of the single market for at least a transitional period and so avoids huge disruption for business. It allows government to sequence negotiations, focusing on issues like the UK's own trade agreements or support for farmers, which are not part of the EEA and will be complex enough to bed down in the two-year exit period.

Remainers and Leavers should also be able to unite around this as a transitional arrangement. Remainers because it is the least disruptive in the short run and would preserve important economic and business interests like the financial services passport. Leavers because it would achieve Brexit quickly, extract us from everything bar the single market and some closely associated policies, return to us our own farming and fisheries policies, and gives us at least the protection of the EEA safeguard clause for free movement. And if we want to go further, we always have that option.
Although he doesn't go as far as I do with Flexcit, and obviously hasn't given it as much thought, he is at least on the same page. But what is especially fascinating is the reference in the penultimate sentence of the quoted passage, where Frost writes that his option "gives us at least the protection of the EEA safeguard clause for free movement".

After so many people have either ignored this provision, or rushed to find reasons why it could not apply, it is seriously refreshing to have someone at the time pointing out the obvious and most accessible solution to the FOM problem.

But, of course, now he is Johnson's man, he's ditched his previous ideas and is now locked into the very negotiating scenario which he knows will be very difficult to achieve. Believing what he did, it is hard to understand how a man of principle would take the job.

Now the man is in the hot seat, and time is running out, the man is chasing his tail trying to find a solution to an intractable problem. Monday's Telegraph, however, put the onus on the EU which, it said, would find a "creative solution" to avoid an accidental no-deal Brexit if a trade agreement with the UK was reached too late to beat the end of year deadline.

On offer is the idea rehearsed on this blog, with the treaty being provisionally applied, and ratified by the European Parliament in the new year – if it doesn't throw it out because of the IMB.

Yesterday, though, we had Johnson "warning his top ministers" – according to Reuters - that it was far from certain that a trade agreement would be reached with the EU. Nevertheless, he warbled, Britain would thrive with, or without, a deal – still trotting out the "Australian terms" schtick.

We got the same message from The Times, only with the added intelligence that negotiations were continuing in Brussels, "amid briefings from government sources" that Frost had told his boss that a deal could be ready in a week's time.

This is semi-confirmed by "European diplomatic sources" who say that an agreement could be finalised as early as Monday next week. Barnier was to brief EU ambassadors on progress on Friday or at the weekend, and we have The Sun saying much the same thing.

Last night, the Financial Times joined the throng, headlining that hopes were growing for a post-Brexit trade deal next week, with the Irish premier telling us that he can see "landing zones" for agreement after both sides softened their positions.

Assuming that this isn't a chimera, it seems that movement has come on the fishing issue, with the EU moderating its demands, while UK ministers are acknowledging that the UK hasn't got enough boats to catch all the fish and is thus going for a deal that recognises British sovereignty, but could allow "generous" rights for EU boats while the UK fleet was built up.

However, we don't seem to be on the home straight yet, as the EU is still seeking to preserve as much of its existing quota as it can, and wants guarantees of continued access to UK waters, something which London regards "an affront to its sovereignty".

There is something in the air though, as both sides see next week as the moment when a deal — if there is one — will materialise, and, in anticipation of a possible deal, Westminster parliamentary business managers are drawing up plans for legislation needed to put any trade agreement on to the statute book before 1 January.

Meanwhile, the DfE – which obviously hasn't got the memo – is telling schools to stock up on long-life products in case of no-deal Brexit, apparently unaware that, if there are going to be problems, they will arise whether we have a deal or not.

That brings the Moonbat out to play, as a born-again Brexit doomsayer, alongside Philip Johnson in the Telegraph, who sees a no-deal exit spelling the end of the United Kingdom, and Sky News floats in with a delayed piece about port delays – rather appropriate really.

I guess there will be some unhappy little journos, having to spike all their doom-laden pieces if Johnson does get a deal, until they realise that it won't make much difference.

Also published on Turbulent Times.