Despite having been a confirmed Europhile since the 1960s of my childhood, I voted 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.
Around 1960 a trendy little shop opened up in Sheffield. Called simply Interior Design, it stocked clean "modern" furniture and domestic knick-knacks, many of Scandinavian origin and the likes of which Sheffield had never seen. 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. 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 was a founder member and so forth.
The French and their cronies had walled us out of their new European Economic Community, the EEC - I must have been only five or so years old but I still vividly remember de Gaulle's "Non!" splashed across the headlines - so we had co-founded our with some Scandinavian countries and a couple of others who mistrusted the EU.
"How immoral and self-defeating of the French", thought that small boy.
Then de Gaulle died, relations thawed, the EFTA countries were offered the chance to join the EEC and some of us did so. Hooray! 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, by now a revolting student and recent 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.
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 of that and said so. 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.
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 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. 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.
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? (The European Central Bank has at least realised how bad that looks and said it will stop printing them in 2018, but there is no question of withdrawing them in exchange for smaller denominations and they will remain legal tender). 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 vetoes, while those which should be open and democratic are equally rife with 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 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 once again, its institutions going ever deeper and more irrevocably rotten.
Our strength of feeling caught the government of the day unawares. Prime Minister David Cameron thought to shut us up once and for good, but his referendum backfired on him and he fell.
So 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.
Elsewhere the US, China and the old Commonwealth nations will once again be free to make quicker, more flexible deals with us as we each see fit. The City of London will be free to relaunch its ambitions as the main financial centre not merely for Europe but for the whole globe (My City friends, though mostly Conservative, are delighted Brexiteers).
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 sigts on a negotiated soft Brexit, a comprehensive deal to minimise the short-term damage on all sides. But the unique position of Northern Ireland, together with the EU's intransigent autoritarianism 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.
The French have an apt proverb, "reculer pour mieux sauter", stepping back to jump farther. That is what we are doing, 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 to be shut out by our leaving. I have myself been shut out of my life many times and have been forced to reinvent myself and my career as often, 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.
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 was just a muddled pipe dream. The EU constitution is too convoluted and rife with petty self-interests for that, even a mere trade agreement with Canada took eight years and a 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 was the inevitable solution for the bulk of it. And it would be invidious to lead the EU into thinking otherwise, they are even less able to working at speed than we are and have only two years, we must not dangle 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 find themselves embedded in the European Economic Area (EEA), if not the EU itself. They have been facing the same kind of seismic shock which our former partners suffered when we deserted them for the EEC and careers are already being destroyed. We lurch from one extreme to the other.
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 host 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. 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 love the UK to remain within the EEA. But the EU will not allow negotiations to begin until after Brexit. If you are among those who fear for your job, don't blame the UK, blame the EU negotiating stance.
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 campaigning 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 aggressive politics, refugees and protectionism. Could Brexit have been handled better, more sensitively? If the abuse hadn't so 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 away as time passes.
On the plus side, the prospect of a hard Brexit has receded. Endless prevarication and procrastination by a divided Parliament has 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 before we could pull out of both the Commission's grasp and the closed-shop Customs Union without an immediate hard Brexit and Irish border controls. One wonders how the then Prime Minister Theresa May feels about being lied to by the EU negotiators over their willingness to delay and renegotiate. It took her replacement Boris Johnson to see through the deceit and call their bluff. And as I update this he has just won an overwhelming mandate in a General Election to continue that work.
However the game is not over. Trade and other small-print negotiations still lie ahead and they will not be easy. If replacement arrangements are not forthcoming, Brexit will still prove pretty damn hard.
Meanwhile the UK is already looking informally elsewhere: negotiations with our former close-trading partners and others had to remain "informal" until the exit deal was closed, but they are beginning to accelerate, make no mistake about that. Boris Johnson wants to make the UK a global leader in genuine free trade. So do I.
Some further thoughts on foreign policy appear in A Radical Liberal Manifesto.
The UK will soon be free of the EU yoke. Thank goodness, now we can turn from the past and look forward once more to building the right Europe. 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 become dominated by Norway. They are wary of having us back, but in general they are happy to do provided it is a long-term commitment and not just a temporary fix for our Brexit-induced woes. Norway's Prime Minister has already begun tweeting 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 is often referred to as the "Norway" option. Failing that, a "Swiss" option of many narrower agreements arriving at much the same thing could 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.
But 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 during the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May and my own MP both assured us it was the case. But it is a wholly false perception. The EFTA/EEA solution was promoted in high places from the very start of the Brexit campaign, for example:
I know too from the personal experience of my friends that Norway is no open house. It implements strict controls and if a would-be migrant 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.
Then, 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 knew that it was thriving under our revitalised presenceand not dying. This is our big chance to get it right third time round, it really is.
Updated 14 Dec 2019