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Brexit and Beyond - A Personal View

Updated 19 Dec 2021

Despite having been a confirmed Europhile since my childhood in the 1960s, I voted for Brexit in the 2026 referendum. I did so because, in my humble opinion, the EU is simply the wrong Europe, it is not and never can be a liberal and democratic Europe of the people. But the Europe that can be is sitting right on our doorstep, in fact we helped to found it. That Europe is called EFTA. It is time to go home.

The EEC and EFTA

In the late 1950s the European Economic Community, the EEC, came into existence. Its laudable purpose was to bring economic success to all of Europe and make waging international wars on each other so damaging as to be unthinkable.

Around the same time a trendy little shop opened up in Sheffield. Called simply Interior Design, it sold clean "modern" furniture and domestic knick-knacks, many of Scandinavian origin and the likes of which Sheffield had never seen. This was several years before Terence Conran and Habitat, never mind IKEA. My Dad was busy bringing similar modern design to Sheffield's ailing silverware and cutlery industry, and I was just old enough to start taking an intelligent interest in such things.

A few years later Britain was among a group of countries wanting to join the EEC. But the French government and their cronies did not want the UK in. I must have been about ten years old but I still vividly remember General Charles de Gaulle's "Non!" splashed across the headlines in vast letters. They had in fact been developing its constitution to make is as incompatible as possible with the British way of doing things, deliberately making it next to impossible for us to join. "How immoral", thought that small boy.

EFTA logo ca. 1960

One day the furniture and knick-knacks in the little shop started sprouting labels with "EFTA" printed on them.
"What's that, Daddy?"
"The European Free Trade Association", and he explained all that can be explained to a child, about how Britain had co-founded it with some Scandinavian countries and a couple of others who had been left out of the EEC. The small boy realised that de Gaulle's anglophobia had been not merely immoral but self-defeating. (Others tell me that in fact de Gaulle's headlining rejection came some years down the line, after the UK had helped found EFTA. But the constitutional jiggery-pokery had certainly been there from the start, so any fuzziness in the remembered impressions of a small child have no bearing on the underlying politics; I may safely give then here.)

Then de Gaulle died, relations thawed, the EFTA countries were offered the chance to join the EEC and some of us did so. Hooray! – or so it seemed at first. But that beautiful and inspirational little shop withered and died. Where had all that lovely Scandinavian design gone? Ah, well, when we signed up for the EEC they made us dump EFTA. And the Commonwealth trade agreements. Ditto the USA, and more. What?! That's right, as EEC members we could have no unilateral trade agreements with anybody else any more, and the EEC had few if any outside its borders to compensate. It all had to go, not just EFTA but the Anzacs, India, great swathes of Africa and the rest of the Third World, poor and often desperate people all around the planet whose economies had relied on us since the sordid days of Empire, forbidden and totally stuffed the lot of 'em. New Zealand lamb disappeared overnight from our butchers' shops. This was not a trading association we had joined, this was a trading bloc. There was no free trade here, just a closed shop scratching each other's backs and shutting out the neediest.
"How immoral of the EEC and of our own government", thought that young boy, now a teenager and soon to become a revolting student and recruit to the Liberal Party (this was long before the days of the SDP and the Gang of Four).

So that's the first reason why the EEC/EU is for me the wrong Europe. Protectionism from the mouth of anybody with Liberal pretensions is a disgusting hypocrisy, and to mask it behind a false veneer of internal free trade is doubly disgusting.

Souvenir of the EEC:
1973 commemorative 50p bit

But a more subtle ploy of de Gaulle and his cronies had been to deliberately structure the EEC in such a way as to be as incompatible as possible with the British way of doing things, making UK integration next to impossible. Some were even proud enough to boast of their achievement to the press and public. The free trade barrier was just one example. Nevertheless, like many others I lived in hope. We dreamed that with the UK now inside the EEC, all that closed-minded and xenophobic nonsense might be slowly unpicked. I even had enough enthusiasm to keep a souvenir 50p piece.

The European Union

Later of course, the EEC evolved into the EU. In doing so it managed to maintain, even to strengthen, the divisive institutions deep within its constitution. The EU Commission established itself as not only the "civil service" of the EU but also a key mover of legislation. There were, and still are, insufficient checks and balances to manage this conflict of interests and conflation of powers. Not properly democratic, unauditable and unaccountable, the Commission which had started out as a facilitator of cooperation morphed into an enforcer of submissive compliance. The Council of Ministers too developed authoritarian habits, steamrollering any minority voice into impotence. Decisions were made by the core members behind closed doors and wider consultations reduced to a rubber-stamping and publicity exercise. If France and Germany happened to agree on something (a rare event to begin with, but increasingly common as the years rolled by), that was absdolutely that and the others could go whistle. The European Parliament struggled to find any kind of independent voice, being more akin to the UK's own emasculated House of Lords than a genuine legislative parliament, yet unlike the Lords it is the only democratic voice of the people that the EU possesses.

For over forty years successive British governments fought to tame this institutionally corrupt, anti-democratic and authoritarian monster until it became transparently clear that it would not be subdued. Even Margaret Thatcher could do no more than tinker with the UK's terms of engagement, the monster itself remained immune. Its new currency regime was equally flawed and we managed to keep out of that one, but only just. I ask you, who in their right mind thinks that briefcases stuffed with €500 notes is an ethical and transparent way to conduct Government business? When first challenged on this, the Commission's response was to agree - they should be supplemented by €1,000 notes, which were soon introduced. It did presently dawn on the European Central Bank just how bad that looked, and it said it would stop printing them in 2018, but there was no question of withdrawing them in exchange for smaller denominations and they remained legal tender. Meanwhile its financial processes are so byzantine and impenetrable that no set of annual accounts has ever been approved by the auditors. Where have all those briefcases full of €1,000 notes ended up? Nobody has the faintest idea, and that's official.

As a gross generalisation one can say that those parts of the EU constitution which should be authoritatively controlled are rife with petty self-interest and partisan vetoes, while those which should be open and democratic are equally rife with secrecy and authoritarian diktat. Clearly, this is not my Europe, no cooperative body of enlightened nations leading the free world to greater freedoms. To a younger generation this seems unthinkable, but you kids (many of you already middle-aged) never knew the freedoms past, you have not lived through the last forty years, watching the machine shape itself and wrap its power plays in pious words and protestations of innocence. No, my friends, this is the wrong Europe par excerllence, its institutions going ever deeper and more irrevocably rotten.


The strength of feeling of us old diehards caught the government of the day unawares. Prime Minister David Cameron thought to shut us up once and for all, but his referendum backfired on him and he fell.

The remainer media fed themsleves with hate speech, how we Brexiteers were all far-right, nostaligic xenophobes dreaming of the Empirte and past glories. Our ambitions to rebuild a vibrant independent economy, a revitalised centre of global finance, and suchlike were fairytales.

Take finance for example. It is our biggest earner of invisible exports and London was once the unquestioned global centre. But that was not just through Empire; London is unique among international finance centres in that you can trade with Hong Kong and Japan in the morning, Europe and New York during the day and the American West Coast in the afternoon. You can deal with the whole world in a single day. Even Paris is too far to the East to do so. Frankfurt and Paris constantly schemed and fought to steal the global pedestal from under our feet, but the solid facts of geography long kept finacial heads firmly on the facts. Eventually London's independence was eaten into by bureaucracy, Frankfurt beat off the Parisian threat and established itself as the centre of European finance. Suddenly, global finance began to question where it should rest its head. My City friends saw clearly the need for the UK economy to sustain its invisible earnings and hang on to the global crown. But Frankfurt was, in its ignorance and narrow greed, killing the golden goose. For the sake not only of their own jobs, but also of everybody who had a job in the UK or whose benefits were paid out of government taxes, those City friends became determined Brexiteers. Of course they had colleagues who lacked confidence and believed the battle already lost, the bright new opportunity a fairy-tale; better a hanger-on to Frankfurt than lost in the wilderness. I wonder what happened to them.

For we, the Nation, voted. We said goodbye. Yes, we did that! We said goodbye! The above may go some way to explaining why, and also why there was something of a generation gap in the voting pattern.

But closing the deal was hard work and nearly came unstuck. The initial rhetoric that came from the EU only confirmed the truth. The UK had to be punished to deter others from following, must negotiate under their terms, must leave under their conditions, is not allowed to talk to its own historic friends about its own future, etc. etc. No, my dear EU, this was exactly the kind of authoritarian, anti-Liberal, anti-democratic, xenophobic bullying that we voted to walk away from. You were just rubbing in how wrong your Europe has become, it has eaten you, you are now so blind to others that you cannot even see what is written in fire across our foreheads. Goodbye!

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, came in on a platform of delivering Brexit. She set her heart on a negotiated soft Brexit, a comprehensive and labyrinthine deal to minimise the short-term damage on all sides. But the unique position of Northern Ireland, together with the EU's intransigent authoritarianism over its own version of "freedom" eventually caught her out. She left open a "backstop" which was nothing more than continued membership of the trading bloc for as long as the EU chose to disagree over the fine details. The DUP and many Brexiteers rightly condemned this farce.

I was among those who doubted that the exit itself could be softened much in a mere two years of wrangling, however desirable that may be, it seemed like just a muddled pipe dream. The EU constitution is too convoluted and rife with petty self-interests for that to seem possible; even a mere trade agreement with Canada took eight years to reach the EU's obligatory last-minute firefight. No, the default position we faced was a break cleanly and simply made. Perhaps with a few sharply-defined essentials, such as cooperative security arrangements or continuing mutual overseas residence retained, but not much. Hard looked like the inevitable solution for the bulk of it. And it would have been invidious to lead the EU into thinking otherwise, they are even less able to working at speed than we are and had only two years, we needed to avoid dangling awkward distractions in front of them. Northern Ireland alone was and still is an enormous challenge, never mind squeezing the solution into two years made all the harder by its own current internal deadlock. Playing for a soft Brexit seemed to me the least practical negotiating stance imaginable.

This disappointed me. I feared, and to some extent still fear, for the livelihoods and careers of a younger generation who would find themselves embedded in the European Economic Area (EEA), if not the EU itself. They were facing the same kind of seismic shock which our former partners suffered when we deserted them for the EEC and many careers have indeed been destroyed. We lurch from one extreme to the other.

In the event the EU backed down and I was wrong about the inevitability of a hard Brexit. Endless prevarication and procrastination by a divided UK Parliament at least bought us the time to negotiate a core deal with the EU. It also bought the EU time to wake up and realise that a hard Brexit would be hard on them too. The new deal had to be negotiated twice, with a weak, compromising Prime Minister replaced by a no-holds-barred Brexiteer, before we could pull out of both the Commission's grasp and the closed-shop Customs Union without an immediate hard Brexit and full Irish border controls. One wonders how Theresa May feels about being lied to by the EU negotiators over their willingness to delay and renegotiate. It took her highly intelligent and canny replacement Boris Johnson to see through the deceit, take over the initiative and call their bluff. It was priceless to watch. Having driven his predecessor like a tame sheep, the EU negotiators found themselves pushed from pillar to post by an angry goat. Boris got his Brexit deal.

But all was not bright and sunny. Some diasters did still get stitched in. I am a fan of the EEA and the Four Freedoms it embodies, free movement of labour being one of them. But there is a fifth freedom that tends to accompany them - freeloading on the host country. And while that can be necessary and right for short-term disaster relief, it is not one that any nation can support in the long term. Such opportunistic and parasitic immigration is not specific to the UK but is a global phenomenon and while it is being addressed by many EU countries, local circumstances differ so much that a unified policy is not sensible. Unlike the EEC/EU trading bloc, The EEA is an open agreement and many EFTA countries have signed up. Norway for example has negotiated effective immigration controls against freeloaders, while subscribing fully to the Four Freedoms.

In the UK, native unemployment rates are low, homelessness is high. The UK's problem with EU immigration is of its own making: housing development has been stultified by Local Authority box-ticking and developer price manipulation. The solution to the immigration crisis lies in education and housebuilding. I would have loved the UK to remain within the EEA. But the EU would not allow negotiations to begin until after Brexit, so we had to pull out. If you are among those who lost or still fear for your job, don't blame the UK, blame the EU negotiating stance.

Post-Brexit fallout

The French have an apt proverb, "reculer pour mieux sauter", stepping back to jump farther. That is what we did, stepping back in readiness, as painful as it may be for some of us in the short term. And those hit hard by Brexit have my sympathy. Just as I felt for all those shut out when we joined the EU, I now feel for all those shut out - on both sides - by our leaving. I have myself been shut out of my life and been forced to reinvent myself and my career several times, as often as not with a family in tow. It is painful at the time, no doubt about that, but I have never looked back in sorrow, only in relief that I was able to escape to something better. Take heart, check out the half of your glass that is still full, and follow your star.

Sadly also, and for me the nastiest surprise, the Brexit vote brought an immediate outburst of racial abuse and violence - mainly in the UK. It was clear during the campaign that anti-immigration sentiment was fuelling the Brexit vote. I think that few of us realised that this would be released not against the institutions which created the situation but against anybody who looked or sounded like an immigrant. And it was compounded by an emerging global resurgence of nationalistic politics, refugees and protectionism. Could Brexit have been handled better, more sensitively? Had the overt racism not also caught the incumbent Prime Minister by surprise, had the economic imperative not then been to press on as quickly as possible, yes it probably could. But as things turned out not enough was done to prevent or rein in the wave of xenophobia and it became a black spot in British history. I for one am ashamed for my fellow countrymen. Thank goodness it seems to be fading slowly as time passes, though the global undercurrent remains disquieting.

There followed a year of trade negotiations with the EU. I was sorry to see Boris refusing to put the EEA on the agenda. Once again the EU had met its match and behind its united front seethed a maelstrom of nationalist opportunism and bickering. It flounced and walked away more than once when its own negotiating terms were rejected. Much noise was made about how the British could not be trusted to keep their part of the deal anyway. But no trade deal would be worse for the EU than for the UK (a home truth it vehemently denied) and it soon came back with its tail between its legs, to meekly follow the UK's negotiation programme. Of course it remained a skilled and tough negotiator; in the final straight, to close the deal even Boris and his team had to make concessions over fishing rights in UK waters and a trade border of sorts within the UK, between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. In return they got the backstop turned on its head; conformance to EU regulations was replaced with abandonment of the agreement's conditions, a threat of anarchy and trading wars that Ireland, and hence the EU, rightly dreads.

However the game is not over. The Northern Irish and the UK's fishermen soon found themselves badly let down and have begun agitating for improved trading terms. The EU's position is sickeningly predictable; flat intransigence, rudeness, posturing bordering on the insane, but when their bluff is called with talk of violent civil action and the no-deal backstop, and the Irish Tishoc urgently drawing their attention to these, a small voice suddenly admits they could be willing to discuss it after all. French President Emmanuel Macron deseerves especially to be called out for his strident playing of the anglophobia card when it suits his own internal politics (and it is refreshing to see how Boris Johnson plays him and his kind like a fish). It remains to be seen just how many of the EU demands can be salvaged in the face of legal challenge from the Good Friday and related agreements.

Around the globe, the US, China and the old Commonwealth nations have once again become free to make quicker, more flexible deals with us as we each see fit. The City of London is now free to relaunch its ambitions as the main financial centre for the whole globe - and in the doing, who knows what will happen to Frankfurt in the long term, for profit speaks louder than politics in the money markets.

Meanwhile the UK has been cutting a multitude of trade deals elsewhere, not only "business-as-usual" deals with the vast majority of the EU's trading partners, but also new ones. Boris Johnson wants to make the UK a global leader in genuine free trade. I may not be a Conservative, but I agree with him there all right.

Plus ça change

As the French say, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (The more it changes, the more it stays the same). The EU is running true to form. When the Covid epidemic hit, the distribution of vaccines brought out the Commission's true colours in graphic form. Even the United Nations took time out to censure them for their anglophobic announcement that they would override commercial contracts and hijack any vaccines which had been ordered from them by the UK, despite the UK's more pressing need at that time. Yes, let me spell that out to you again; the United Nations felt the need to officially step in and restrain France from its lethal Anglophobic threats! Even de Gaulle had never stooped so low. The Commission's President was forced to reverse their plans and apologise. Yet, strangely, she has made no visible progress in calling those responsible to account. Such are the democratic credentials of the European Commission. Moreover the Commission's plans included the prevention of vaccine deliveries across the Irish border, a clear and flagrant breach of the trade deal so recently concluded. Now who couldn't be trusted? The ensuing outcry led to more swift backpedalling. It also led to threats against the EU border staff, resulting in their temporary withdrawal until the inflamed conditions created by the announcements had calmed back down. Lessons, it seems, have to be constantly relearned. But the covers had been lifted, the true attitude of the Commission to the UK had been revealed, unchanged down the years. The President who was forced to apologise will be gone in a few years, there is no sign that the anglophobic Commissioner who tried their luck will be.

Less well publicised is the EU's withdrawal of .eu Internet domain names from UK owners. The saga follows a similar anglophobic path. At first, all UK owners would be bounced in short order. This proved against the terms on which the .eu domain was licensed to the EU, so the EU retreated to demanding only a registered address in the EU. They were similarly obliged to offer a longer period of grace for the domain owners to make the new arrangement of their choice, be it .eu or elsewhere. The loss of revenue to the EU runs into the tens of millions, yet is the least of their concerns; nationalistic revenge is all. Disgustingly petty, brazenly anglophobic.

Even the EU's own politicians have been publicly calling their Commission to order. Some hope, if history is anything to go by. Especially when the French leaders make Russian-style threats to cut off Jersey's oil supply because they don't like the new fishing rights forms. Empty rhetoric no doubt, but such a breathtaking diplomatic faux pas as to undermine any faith in their judgement or credibility on other matters. Nobody will ever take you seriously again, M. Macron, nor your nation while you remain in power. And all this kind of xenophobic nonsense continuing on and on, from almost the day the trade agreement was signed! We are so well out of it!

EFTA again - the right Europe

EFTA logo today

EFTA 4 UK campaign

Now that the UK is free of the EU yoke, we should be beginning to build the right Europe once more. Any opportunity to lay the foundations of a new European future should be sought out and grabbed: genuinely cooperative international institutions, genuine free trade, genuine democracy. EFTA has changed; once dominated by us, it has since further shrunk to a small handful of members, dominated by Norway. They are wary of having us back, not least because of our size, and naturally opinions among them differ. But in general they are happy to consider us provided it is a long-term commitment and not just a temporary fix for our Brexit-induced woes (as some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues so cynically propose). Norway's Prime Minister tweeted strong hints to Boris.

I agree wholeheartedly with EFTA 4 UK that it is indeed the way ahead for the long term. In Brexit-speak this was often referred to as the "Norway" option (as opposed to the "Canada" option delivered by Boris). Failing that, a "Swiss" option of many narrower agreements arriving at much the same thing seems more politically acceptable in today's post-Brexit world, and would create a trade relationship between EFTA and the UK which would have greater traction in making fairer trade deals with the EU than either of us can alone. Also worth a thought.

The EEA, and EFTA with it, respects the four freedoms. This is widely believed in the UK to make control of immigration and freeloaders impossible, and for this reason it has been kept off the table throughout and beyond the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May and my own MP both assured us it was the case. But it is a wholly false perception. I know from the personal experience of my friends that Norway is no open house. It implements strict controls and if a would-be migrant freeloader cannot pay their way as either visitor or worker then they are sent packing. So yes, a country can be in the EEA/EFTA and deny the fifth freedom where it is a practical necessity to do so, while respecting the core freedoms of Europe.

The EFTA/EEA solution was promoted in high places from the very start of the Brexit campaign, for example:

But the ignorance and blidness of our leaders in the UK - across all the major parties - failed us.

What a tragedy! For the EU is beginning to look fragile (Poland and Greece being two particularly dissatisfied members). Other disgruntled members might feel more able to break away from the wrong Europe and join a new and better one, if they saw that it was thriving under our revitalised support and not dying. So of course the EU seeks to thwart us and diss us at every turn. Nevertheless, this is our big chance now to get it right third time round, it really is.

Some further thoughts on foreign policy appear in A Radical Liberal Manifesto.