Richard North, 30/08/2019  

In Flexcit, first published as a concept in 2013, nearly two years before the referendum, I wrote that leaving the EU needed to be a flexible process requiring continuous development.

My then concluding message – a repetition and emphasis of my central point – was that leaving the EU was not a single event, but a multi-phasic process. It is one, I wrote, that will take many years to complete – then working on the presumption that we would be arranging for a steady, measured divergence of policies rather than a "big bang" separation.

The aim, I advanced, would be to keep the best of our agreements with the EU, while freeing the remaining Member States to follow their own path towards political integration, a route which we have no intention of following.

In short, I suggested that by leaving the EU, we were not ending a relationship with EU Member States. We were redefining it – there are no circumstances where we could not have a continued relationship with the remaining 27 EU Member States. And, since the EU is increasingly the mechanism by which the EU-27 organise their external affairs, that requires us having a relationship with the EU as well.

On that basis, it was entirely reasonable to assert – as I did on the day of the referendum - that Brexit is not an exercise in isolating ourselves from the EU and its 27 Member States, but an agreement to travel alongside each other, choosing different paths when these better suit our different needs.

Of course, Flexcit was not adopted – although it very nearly was, and how different the current situation might have been had it provided a template for our post-Brexit strategy.

Its actual rejection, first by Cummings and then by Arron Banks was in equal measure a demonstration of political cowardice of the highest order and extraordinary hubris, inherent in the mistaken belief that we could successfully undertake such a complex process as Brexit without having a detailed plan.

I and my co-workers were not wrong to propose such a plan – otherwise it can hardly be the case that so many tried to rip it off and call the work their own. Those who rejected not only Flexcit but the very concept of a plan (as a matter of tactical convenience) were the ones who were wrong – and still are.

Nor was I wrong to assert that leaving the EU was not a single event, but a multi-phasic process. It always was, and still is. Rejection of Flexcit doesn't change that. It is not something that we can "get done", and nor does sorting phase one – when we do finally resolve that – actually amount to very much.

The mechanical process of managing our legal separation from the EU was the first and ostensibly the least complex of the Brexit phases. The more complex phases have yet to be addressed, and will take many years before we begin to know the shape of them.

Nor, as I have pointed out recently, does a no-deal Brexit actually achieve anything. Without the Withdrawal Agreement, we lack the foundations on which to build the next EU-related phases of Brexit. There is no point in seeking to replace these with global agreements – most notably a US trade deal. We need the EU as well.

I suppose that was one of the reasons why I was so uneasy about the emergence of the term "Brexit" in the first place. It defines only one part of the process, leaving the EU. The other – with far more important long-term implications – is rebuilding a relationship with the EU, something which must happen and which is made all the more difficult by Johnson's confrontational stance.

With parliament and firstly May's and now Johnson's administration having brought us to the current impasse, one can only express genuine wonderment compounded by an utter sense of bafflement about how the "political classes" have managed to make such a complete, unmitigated mess of the job they have been given.

As long as they keep on going the way they have been, the only sound advice an analyst could give as to how to solve the problem of Brexit is the same as the directions given to the baffled American tourist asking the way to Tipperary: "To be sure, I wouldn't start from here!" When we joined the EEU in 1972, we were given a seven year transition period and over 47 years have adopted many more major European Treaties, adding significantly to the complexity of the political and economic integration process.

What puzzles me beyond bafflement, then, is why Johnson (or anybody else for that matter) thinks that Brexit is something we can get "done" in a matter of months, when it should always have been regarded as a process rather than an event, taking decades rather than months or even years.

The political classes have no longer anything to offer that will get us out of the mess they have made. They need to admit that they've got it wrong, and that nothing they have on the table will make things any better.

When I've managed personally completely to mess up a complex piece of software-driven electronic equipment, the last resort before one is forced to admit defeat and trash the whole thing - or return it to the manufacturers for a "service" that will cost more than the original equipment – is press the "factory reset" button.

While I would share Pete's frustration with the lack of progress, letting the chips fall where they may is not a solution. Like the uneaten meals left by recalcitrant toddlers, it is a non-solution that still leaves open the need for a solution.

In political terms, we already have a factory reset button for what some people (wrongly) call a half-way house – the Efta/EEA or "Norway Option". It would solve the "backstop" problem, and buy us time to discuss seriously our long term options - a debate we've never really had.

We need to rethink this option as a "middle way" that could command the majority support of the electorate, if addressed correctly and honestly, on a realistic timescale.

Already, the EFTA 4 UK is seeking funding to write to 650 MPs, 73 UK MEPs and hundreds of peers to remind them of the availability of this option. They should be given a chance.

The big mistake made by so many of the advocates of this option in the recent past is to assume that it is an off-the-cuff answer that can be implemented quickly. Yet there is no EEA treaty as such, but multiple treaties, each adapted to the specific needs of the three NIL Efta Members.

To adapt such a complex and comprehensive treaty to serve the relationship needs of the EU and the UK would take all of the two years allowed for in the original transitional period, which now already needs an extension.

But, with proroguing parliament, that does leave Johnson the option, in a new session of parliament, to re-present the Withdrawal Agreement, asking for their support against the assurance that he will use an extended transitional period to implement the Efta/EEA option, with the added proviso that we are probably looking for a 10-20 year membership before any drastic new step is taken.

Since this will ensure that the backstop will never be implemented, unlike his fraudulent "alternative arrangements", this is the only way the prime minister in office can honour his commitment to removing the backstop. The only things lacking are political commitment and integrity – which may, of course, prove an impenetrable barrier.

However, if the politicians cannot come up with something on their own – and they can't – then it is to us, the people, to point the way. Short of a real coup d' état, I see no other way.

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