Brexit is like life. The journey matters more than the final destination. Instead of fixating on where we will, eventually, end up, pay more attention to the things that happen along the way.
As Brexit talks start, there are abundant signs of a possible compromise on Britain’s exit, or at least, on the timing of that exit. Yes, the Article 50 period will, absent an agreement to the contrary, expire in March 2019 and with it Britain’s formal membership of the EU.
But what follows might not look or feel like the clean break that some voters have imagined. Among British politicians of all persuasions, there is, once again, a growing conviction that Britain cannot leap out of the EU in 21 months’ time with just a Free Trade Agreement, or perhaps even just WTO rules to break the fall. A transitional deal is on the cards – assuming the EU27 will agree.
That transition could well look a lot like the European Free Trade Association, whose current members are Norway, Lichtenstein, Switzerland and Iceland. They trade freely with the EU in the European Economic Area. They adhere to the rules of the Single Market and can trade freely within it, but are not part of the Customs Union so they can strike trade deals with other nations. There’s a cost to all this of course, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Britain was a member of EFTA until 1973, and an interesting range of people are now saying it should be again after 2019. Put it another way, when Dan Hannan and Nick Clegg are both publicly saying that a transitional deal based on EFTA is the best course for Britain, there is scope for a sensible, cross-party compromise on what comes next. A leading opponent of a transitional deal has been one Theresa May, who said in her Lancaster House speech in January:
‘I do not mean that we will seek some form of unlimited transitional status, in which we find ourselves stuck forever in some kind of permanent political purgatory.