BREXIT and Free Trade: Let’s Talk About ‘Conscious Uncoupling’

The public, while united over ending free movement of people and regaining full legislative autonomy from the European Courts of Justice, are not particularly perturbed by the idea of limited ongoing payments for a degree of access to the EU single market. Nor are they particularly deterred by the idea that Brexit may not be completed in two years, with both Leave voters and Remain voters fully prepared for negotiations to last as long as a decade.

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By Alexandra Phillips l August 21, 2017

LONDON-When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced their split using the term ‘conscious uncoupling’ a category of divorce was finally branded. Separation needn’t be acrimonious nor destructive, especially when there are children involved.

Let’s look at Brexit through the same prism.

The UK choosing to leave the EU is not a declaration of contrariety against the political bloc, less still against the continent. It is simply saying that aspects of this relationship are not working, so let’s divide up any shared assets and work out custody over the many businesses and industries being raised by Brussels. They now require co-parenting. And for that, amicable terms of divorce.

A Temporary Customs Union

I was extremely pleased to see the UK Government taking the positive initiative of “putting the children first” and proposing a transition period where a customs union should be in place while free trade deals are being wrangled. This would enable ‘business as usual’ while negotiations take place. If the EU is determined to dig their heels in over talking about trade until other aspects are determined, then let’s make it clear, today, that it is not the UK standing in the way of fluid exports and imports and mortgaging the business community’s future for the sake of political point-scoring. It is not the UK frustrating matters of trade and in doing so, dragging the kids into the middle of the divorce, thereby making a knotty and quarrelsome split. The UK is saying let’s put the children’s needs first and work together to protect their interests, whether they are living with their mother or father.

If the EU self-promotes as pro-trade, already having free trade deals with 35 countries without prerogatives concerning immigration and residency, and is enthusiastically negotiating 22 more free trade deals with countries outside the bloc with a slew of interim arrangements and economic partnership agreements with pretty much every remaining country or trading community in the world, then why should the UK be singled out and punished for having the audacity to choose autonomy of governance, while wanting to maintain open trade with its continental neighbours? This is not, as some commentators suggest, the UK wanting to ‘have its cake and eat it’. It’s standard practice for the vast majority of global trading nations.

Placing the ball firmly in Brussels’ court with a sanguine and practicable proposal to keep oxygen coming to business while the resolution to Brexit negotiations is determined, puts the onus on the EU to prove that they are not protectionist.

Separating Narrative from Fact

Inevitably, the typical headline hunting political voices immediately attacked what to me seems like a clear, and rational, position. Minority Brexiteers from dying parties such as UKIP are using the latest announcement as irrefutable evidence that the UK Government are trying to undo Brexit. I predicted this would happen. When I defected to the Conservative Party a year ago I said the biggest risk to Brexit would be shouting from the sidelines from those whose priority is to maintain public prominence and will thus refuse to sacrifice having a distinguishable publicised position to the mundanity of protracted, pragmatic negotiations in the best interests of the nation. I observed that UKIP would ironically need Brexit to fail to remain relevant and thus their relative strength would become the greatest risk to Brexit. Thankfully, UKIP has dissolved into a shadow of its ephemeral notoriety, leaving only avid Remoaners and the market forces behind selling papers to continue to unite the general public behind Brexit by cheering every time a Eurocrat throws a spanner into the works by rejecting any offer Britain puts on the table, however much this goes against national interests.

The Government, however, has a duty to be far more urbane. This is not, and must not be, a political game played out between Brexiteers and Remainers. These are material assessments being made by the decision makers of the country, whose fiduciary and custodial duty is to protect the businesses and rights of the citizens it serves. Many plates must be spun without any breaking, from agriculture to working rights to financial transactions to fishing to industry. I have stated before that the process of Brexit is separating conjoined twins. For this to be done safely, and successfully, it must be done meticulously, looking at the anatomy as an holistic system, while also having a team of specialists operate on the individual parts. This is not amputating a necrotising limb on the battlefield.

I have recently taken it upon myself to produce a comprehensive document separating the European Union’s institutions from its agencies and calculating where ongoing cooperation could, and should, be sought post-Brexit. A great many of the EU’s agencies extend membership beyond the bloc or invite third countries to become observers, depending upon the bespoke relationship, geographically, economically, politically, and commercially, between the interests of Brussels and the interests of their allies.

Is EFTA an Option?

I have also looked at the plausibility of the UK joining EFTA, enabling ongoing access to the EU’s internal market as part of a group of European nations who all reject deeper integration and want to preserve legislative and fiscal autonomy.

EFTA, or the European Free Trade Association, is an intergovernmental organisation promoting free trade and partial economic integration to the benefit of its four member states, all of whom refused to join the EU: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The UK was, in fact, a founder member of EFTA before evolving into a full EU member state. Whilst EFTA is not a customs union in itself, and thus its member states have full rights to enter into bilateral third country arrangements, it coordinates trade policy to meet the needs of its industries, which due to geographical ties often require a degree of harmonisation to enable trade to flow as liberally and profitably as possible.

All countries have to agree to a new member joining and at present. Switzerland, which does not participate in the single market, but has a series of bilateral arrangements with the EU, has spoken positively about the clout the UK could bring to the small bloc. Norway is far less convinced, and is concerned that the UK’s demands as the world’s fifth largest economy would drown out their voice. The Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, suggested “there would be a cost they would have to share, and an authority outside their border that could impose binding decisions on them, which is not entirely in line with what they’ve said they want,” however, she also added that Norway was nonetheless “prepared for various scenarios”.

EFTA Without Free Movement?

Various leading Eurosceptic politicians I have spoken to have been very open to the idea of joining EFTA, as long as the free movement of people was not imposed. EFTA has already signed 27 free trade agreements with 38 global partners that Britain would automatically inherit, if it were to become a member again. It is an attractive, progressive proposition.

Alongside being members of EFTA, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein also have free movement of goods, services and people with the 28-nation EU. However, Switzerland is outside that deal, instead having a network of over a hundred bilateral agreements, all subject to a guillotine clause that would negate the entire set, if just one was broken. This model, as complicated as it may be, suggests that the UK would not be unreasonable in attempting to carve out a ‘British’ model that is tailored towards the unique relationship that the UK should have with the EU and should be firm, and very public, in putting on the record their red lines to negotiations in the same way that the EU continues to do.

Yet, while we have heard about the Norwegian and Swiss models, little is spoken of how a British model would look. The UK could emulate the association agreement that Finland had with EFTA for 25 years until 1986, giving Britain access to EFTA’s free-trade arrangements without committing it to the free movement of people.

Brussels is also likely to be more willing to compromise on key issues such as freedom of movement, if the UK conducts talks on future relations while inside an organisation already tied with, and trusted by, the EU.

It is likely to take at least a decade to separate legally, economically and structurally from the EU and thus there is likely to be a necessary transitional period. While I disagree with the sentiments of my former boss, Nigel Farage, that Britain did not vote for a transitional period and that such a move is conceding too much ground to the EU, I do fully agree with him when he says, “All I see with these negotiations are us giving, giving, giving. We’re trying to be reasonable with the unreasonable, however much we give.” We must be prepared to walk away from talks and have in place a backup plan for the UK government to divert saved EU membership costs to cover WTO standard tariffs through tax relief, for example, for industries affected by Brussels’ obstinacy.

But What Do the Great British Public Actually Want?

A yet to be released major project by the London School of Economics and Oxford University surveying more than 3,000 people actually reveals broad consensus among the British public on what they want from a Brexit deal. Almost unilaterally, people now support a harder Brexit. The feedback from the survey implies extremely weak support for what would amount to a so-called “soft” Brexit, including single market membership, ongoing membership payments, the free movement of people and overarching jurisprudence by the European Courts of Justice. A staggering 67% of respondents even stated that “no deal” would be preferable to a barely perceptible Brexit – the one that they call ‘soft’. Despite attempts to paint the false dichotomy of a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit, with the former only being remotely plausible if somehow evidently distinct from the status quo, this latest study should fire a warning shot to campaign groups hoping to block Brexit.They are not speaking in line with public interest.

The public, while united over ending free movement of people and regaining full legislative autonomy from the European Courts of Justice, are not particularly perturbed by the idea of limited ongoing payments for a degree of access to the EU single market. Nor are they particularly deterred by the idea that Brexit may not be completed in two years, with both Leave voters and Remain voters fully prepared for negotiations to last as long as a decade.

This is in distinct contrast to the calls from prominent Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage that any delay to departure would be an outright betrayal. Yet, this should come as strong reassurance for proponents of a transition period and heavily strengthens the UK’s negotiating position by removing the constantly ticking clock.

The project explored opinions on a total 42 issues surrounding the conditions of Brexit, and on all but 11 topics, Remain and Leave voters were within 5 percentage points of one another when expressing support or opposition to various scenarios, revealing how incredibly united behind and cognizant of national interest the general public actually is, and how detached politicians risk becoming the more they seek to polarise the debate in order to generate headlines.

It would actually seem that on this front, the UK government is the only voice singing in tune with its people.


Alexandra Phillips is former Head of Media for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the political party in Britain that successfully campaigned to leave the EU and was aide to its charismatic leader Nigel Farage. She left UKIP after the referendum victory and joined the Conservative Party in order to ensure other big political ambitions are met in the U.K. She is a political advisor and communications consultant in London. Ms. Phillips is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.