Theresa May has a problem, and that is that it’s anybody’s guess what Brexit actually is. She has been elected on a “Brexit means Brexit” ticket and yet nobody can be quite sure what the destination actually looks like.
Well, maybe that’s not entirely true: Nigel Farage has an idea. To him, it looks like the humiliating capitulation of the rest of the European Union, possibly accompanied by a gushing apology for troubling Blighty in the first place, and sung to the theme from “Dad’s Army”.
The problem for May is that everything short of that can be sold by her rivals (prime ministers always have rivals) as a sellout, betrayal, or simple lack of moral gumption to get the job done.
So what is she to do? She needs access to the EU marketplace, but she also needs to be able to do something big on freedom of movement (FoM).
The answer might be, I suggest, in two places: the Leave campaign’s fabrications, and Robert Harris’s 1992 thriller about Europe under a Nazi victory, “Fatherland”.
First: can she get wiggle room on FoM? The answer is yes. The rest of the EU could allow Britain an emergency brake within the European Economic Area, in return for a nice fat penalty fee. And how does she justify that? By using the Leave campaign’s £350m a week as gospel, even though it is over twice what the UK actually paid. If, say, £325m a week is the price of FoM brake plus access, she could sell that.
After all, she’d be coming back with money and a brake on immigration and single market access, and although she is actually paying far MORE than the UK is paying now, the Leave side can hardly complain. It’s their figure, after all.
Then there’s the second part, to cap the deal. In Robert Harris’ novel the European Community is a nominal single market of partner nations, but in reality is controlled from Berlin, whilst preserving the veneer of independent nations. May has a lot to play with in this regard. There can be formal withdrawal, the lowering of the union and EU flags, the removal of EU signs in airports, the return of the UK passport, all heavily laden symbolism, all signs that “Brexit means Brexit”, and all total bollocks.
Britain remains in an EEA single market where rules are set by Brussels, bound by some sort of EFTA style court. They get to take down a few blue flags, have no seats at the decision-making tables and stand in longer queues in airports, and we get about £16 billion quid a year for our trouble.