Brexit is, undeniably, important. The Prime Minister’s faulty negotiations have now turned what the majority of the British people considered an opportunity into a national crisis. However, now is perhaps the moment to reflect that, in an era of trade wars, geopolitical realignment and existential threats to our nations’ democracies, Brexit is not as important as we have allowed ourselves to imagine.
Its mishandling has certainly whipped up damaging uncertainty – not helped by the events of the last week. Nevertheless, the decision of Japanese car makers to end production in the UK reflects a broader change in the global division of labour.
Similarly, the role of the City of London in Britain’s future deserves careful reconsideration independently of Brexit.
Turning to constitutional matters, the Irish backstop controversy is a reminder of the incomplete peace achieved in Northern Ireland because London and Dublin abandoned their strict sovereignty claims without completing their worthy efforts with a post-Westphalian joint sovereignty arrangement.
In short, never before have the people of the UK needed more a serious debate on their business model and constitutional arrangements. But never before has, courtesy of Brexit, such a debate been less possible.
Brexit has turned the majority of Britons into hostages of three extreme interest groups labouring under strong motives: hard Remainers hellbent on rescinding the June 2016 verdict; hard Brexiteers for whom a costly clean exit from the EU is a prerequisite for “making Britain great again”, and an EU establishment whose only priority is to demonstrate to Europeans that anyone challenging Brussels’ authority will be ritually humiliated.
Caught up in that three-way feud, Britain’s majority are being denied the opportunity to have a truly vital debate about the country’s future.
Democracies are good at engendering convergence in the face of polarisation. But that requires time. Three conditions are needed to give such a debate a chance in the foreseeable future.
First, the Prime Minister must present the EU with an offer that Brussels cannot refuse before April 12.
Second, this offer cannot be her previous deal, given Parliament’s intense and justifiable opposition to a treaty that only a nation defeated at war would accept.
Third, both the Hard Remainers and Hard Brexiteers must be denied what they seek, at least in the short term.
Either a no-deal Brexit before June or Britain’s participation in the European Parliament elections during a lengthy extension of Article 50 would poison the well of British democracy, by maximising the losing minority’s discontent while disempowering the middle ground who favour a soft Brexit.
Key to finding a way out of the current Brexit impasse is to focus on creating the space for a Great Debate on Britain’s business model and constitution, both of which are in a state of disrepair.
An ideal Brexit is out of reach but a decent medium-term settlement allowing Britons jointly to envision their future is not. And that settlement is none other than a Norway Plus, or a Common Market 2.0, solution for the medium term.
In practical terms, Norway Plus would involve Mrs May ditching her deal and mustering a majority in Parliament in favour of an amended Withdrawal Agreement specifying a short transition period after which Britain will remain indefinitely, but not necessarily forever, in the single market and customs union.
The DUP, Labour and Brussels would have no alternative but to agree to this amended agreement before the April 12 deadline.
Once the gun has been removed from the country’s head, another technical extension of Article 50 would be granted to complete the necessary legislative steps.
At the same time, the House of Commons, Britain’s civil society, chambers of commerce, trades unions, citizens assemblies etc can deliberate on how to bring up to date the UK’s business model and constitutional arrangements, including its long-term relationship with the EU.
The argument that Norway Plus is favoured only by a minority is correct but irrelevant. As no majority exists for any type of Brexit outcome, the aim must be to enable democratic dialogue by minimising the discontent of the most discontented and by satisfying the more numerous middle ground who hold the least intense preferences.
While the UK would have to implement EU rules for an indefinite period, Norway Plus respects the 2016 decision to leave the EU without committing the British government to the humiliation of any backstop.
Having left everyone slightly dissatisfied, but no one terribly incensed, Norway Plus would make possible the much needed Great British Debate that the country needs.
And if this debate leads the people of Britain to conclude that they wish to move toward a “cleaner” outcome, then a second referendum can be held, in the fullness of time, to decide either to re-join in the EU or to leave its single market and the customs union.
After all, no one stops Norway today from leaving the single market if its people so choose.