The future looks rather grim for the United Kingdom at the current time. Life outside the EU will be tough and lonely, with hardly any of the so-called “models” being a real option: the EEA route is way too integrationist, the Swiss case does not allow immigration quotas, the Turkish model is too modest, and life under the WTO alone is just not good enough for a country the size of the UK. Furthermore, the EU made it clear after the referendum, in the first meeting of the 27-member European Council, that any agreement on market access shall include all four freedoms. No market access à la carte, and thus no market access if there is no free movement of workers. European leaders are quite in line on this point, and European voters, according to a recent YouGov poll, support their government’s tough stance.
The mess in which the UK has put itself into is damaging for all, but above all for the UK. The country had (and still has) the best of both worlds as a member of the EU: unbridled access to the internal market, voice in the negotiating room, influence among European nations, influence abroad, no duty to join the euro, no Schengen, an opt-out from judicial and police cooperation in civil and criminal affairs, and even a nice rebate after its budget contributions.
But that is all over now. And indeed, I think Theresa May is right when she says that “Brexit means Brexit”. In the future, the UK will abandon the status that it holds today and we should start assuming that. And the sooner the better.
Of course, putting an end to the status quo doesn’t mean that the UK must extricate itself entirely from the EU. In fact, I cannot imagine the UK, with its army of hired and highly competent advisors and negotiators, reaching a Norway-minus, a Swiss, a Turkish or an ad hoc agreement with the EU, leaving the country in a worse position than the one it holds today. It is simply not going to happen. The UK will strike a deal the moment it assumes that the deal is as good or even better that the one it has today. But how on earth are they going to get away with that?
My opinion is that we will certainly see the UK leave the EU as it is today, only to transform itself into a new kind of Member State. The UK could achieve this by “doing a Greenland”, but on a massive scale.
Greenland, although a part of Denmark with a special constitutional status, stopped being a territory of the European Communities in 1985. In fact, the trick was to change its status from an outermost region under Danish jurisdiction into an overseas territory. As is known, the EU Treaties allow some States with close ties with EU Member States, as well as some territories of EU Member States, to stand outside the territorial scope of application of the Treaties, but holding a special association status with the EU that grants them special rights of access to the internal market. These are the so-called Overseas Countries and Territories.
One of the trickiest challenges the UK will face in the following years is how to handle Brexit and keep the country together. Scotland and Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, whilst Northern Ireland delivered a firm remain vote as well. Making Brexit come true and keeping Britain in one piece will be no easy task.
That is exactly why “doing a Greenland” would be the UK’s best choice.
The United Kingdom could still be a member of the EU, but only after England and Wales withdraw from the territory of the EU, leaving Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar as “territories of the EU”. England and Wales would no longer be a part of the EU, but the Treaties could be modestly reformed, as they recently were for Mayotte, in order to embrace both regions as “overseas territories”, with total autonomy and freedom to do their own business and act accordingly. In fact, the Treaties could be minimally reformed to grant England and Wales a special status among the overseas countries and territories, being that the subject of upcoming negotiations with the EU. Under such negotiations, England and Wales could strike a reasonable deal on free movement of workers, and, as is the case of British OCTs, EU law would not be applied in their territory, unless the EU and the UK agreed on incorporating specific EU acts on a case-by-case basis. There would be no jurisdiction of the Court of Justice, no jurisdiction of the European Commission, no risk of being swallowed or bullyied by Eurozone members in Council meetings, and full control of most areas of policy, including some that had been fully transferred to the EU, such as the external commercial policy.
This outcome may sound preposterous, but in fact, considering the mess in which the UK has put itself and the EU in, it’s a rather good solution for all parties involved.
First, the EU keeps Britain as a Member State, at least part of it, and avoids the symbolic hit of a withdrawal of a Member State. Article 50 TEU would never be applied and it would remain as what it always was supposed to be: a nice symbolic provision never to be implemented.
Second, the UK manages to be in the internal market at its own pace, at different speeds and under a much better negotiating position: no two-year time-limit under Article 50 TEU, no tragic dilemmas, no threat of being thrown out of the EU if negotiations fail, and above all, no unbridled free movement of workers and no contributions to the EU budget, unless strictly necessary.
Third, this option would keep Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar exactly where they stand today, intact and untouched in their European-ness, whatever that might mean. In fact, this option would empower the three territories in their affairs in Brussels, for it would be up to them, not England nor Wales, to be in charge of negotiating with a single voice in the Council.
Fourth, this is a more palatable option for EU Member States individually considered, such as Spain, Ireland or even Germany. Spain prefers to see Scotland in the EU as a part of the UK, rather than as an independent State. So does France. In the case of Ireland, the idea of shutting the border in Northern Ireland and stopping trade with the UK is politically and economically terrifying to say the least. For Germany, keeping the UK as a reliable and free-movement-friendly Member State, smaller in size, but big enough to have a say and influence in Brussels, is a better option than having it gone out the door entirely.
Of course this option would require radical constitutional change in the UK. Devolution would have to go much deeper than it is today, the representation of the UK in the EU and in the international community would be radically reshaped, and Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar would have to find an arrangement to manage their common interests in the EU. It sounds radical indeed, but definitely less radical than breaking the United Kingdom apart.
And finally, the democratic argument: if Brexit means Brexit, “doing a Greenland” does not appear to be exactly in line with Brexit, doesn’t it? After all, the UK would still remain a Member State of the EU, although only partially. However, “doing a Greenland” is probably the most coherent response to Brexit, inasmuch it keeps the territories of the UK that voted “leave” outside the EU, with vast freedom of choice, at the same time it keeps inside the EU those territories that clearly expressed a desire to be a part of Europe. “Doing a Greenland” is the most articulate way to respond exactly to what the British people said: some of them wanted to stay, some of them wanted to leave. In some territories, the majority wanted to stay. In other territories, the majority voted leave. Instead of breaking up the UK, why not put a foot outside the EU for those who want “out”, and a foot inside for those want “in”?
If Brexit means Brexit, this is as close as it gets to a genuine yet successful Brexit. And a success is what Theresa May has promised to make of Brexit. “Doing a Greenland” could be the best route towards success, coherent with the mandate of the British people and, above all, a means to avoid complete, utter and irreparable catastrophe for all.