Oslo, Norway. 4 October. “This parrot is dead. It is an ex-parrot”, says parrot-purchasing Monty Python’s John Cleese in the famous parrot sketch. “No, no, he’s not dead. He’s resting. Remarkable bird the Norwegian Blue”, replies parrot-vendor Michael Palin. Watching what passes for Britain’s Brexit debate reminds me of the parrot sketch, not least because I am in Oslo. Actually, I am in Oslo to help launch a new book entitled “Ukraine and Beyond” which considers what to do about an aggressive Russia (which is of course brilliant and very reasonably-priced). However, parrots, Brexit and Norwegians seem to go together these days.
Reason is the dead Brexit parrot, with truth lying mangled in the corner. It is an ex-reason that is no more and has gone to meet its maker. On one side of the debate the Brexiteers suggest that exiting the EU will be straightforward when in fact it is plainly in the interest of so many powerful vested interests to make it as hard as possible. To suggest that post-Brexit Britain will have full access to the Single Market AND impose restrictions on free movement is pure Norwegian Blue (or is that bull). If agreed to by the EU the entire post-Lisbon edifice of an already shaky EU would crumble. On the other side, Remaniacs remain wedded to the falsehood that the poor little dears who voted for Brexit had not a clue what they were voting for and should be ordered to do it again, but this time get it right.
For all that being here in Norway does shed some light on Britain’s possible future. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not one of those lunatics who suggests a Norwegian model for post-Brexit Britain. Britain is a top five world power with a population 65 million people, Norway is not. However, Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) which is a kind of EU-lite for those who want access to the EU’s Single Market, but do not actually want to join it. In Norway’s case one can see their point. EU membership for rich Norway would be utterly punitive as Brussels would almost certainly remove Oslo’s massive oil and gas-fuelled sovereign wealth fund in the name of ‘solidarity’ and to keep the eternal Euro disaster brewing.
And yet there are some pro-EU Norwegian politicians who will tell you what a terrible position Norway finds itself in. This is because to their mind Norway must pay but has no say. In fact, that is only partially true. Norway and the other three EEA members have proved remarkably adroit at getting EU directives amended. The real point about Norway’s relationship with the EU is a sovereign point. Norway has indeed chosen to pay a price for access to the Single Market, and part of that price is adherence to elements of the Free Movement Directive (FMD). But it is not the whole Norway-EU story.
As I was travelling this morning on the train from Oslo airport to Oslo Central Norwegian television was showing a criminal from Eastern Europe being deported. If that criminal had been convicted in Britain under the FMD the British would not have had the right to deport him as an EU citizen unless he posed an immediate threat to British (i.e. other EU) citizens.
Which brings me back to the Brexit dead parrot debate. This morning the normally sound Rachel Sylvester wrote in The Times: “The truth is that when nations prosper, by interacting with the rest of the world, it is impossible because of globalisation for any country to “take back control”. On the face of it Sylvester’s argument is sound. However, her use of the phrase ‘take back control’ is disingenuous. That phrase is a Brexiteer phrase and refers to their desire to remove Britain from the European treaties. Sylvester is instead referring to normal international treaties and quite deliberately conflating the two, when in fact there is a world of sovereign difference between them.
An international trade treaty is made between two or more sovereign states. They agree constraints upon their sovereign action to make the treaty work. However, they still remain sovereign actors free to make or break treaties as they so choose. The EU treaties, particularly (in sequence) the Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon treaties have become progressively different in both scope and ambition to traditional international treaties. EU treaties were and are designed to replace and thus abolish the nation-state by progressively transferring the legal international identity of said state across a whole range of competences (acquis) to the EU in order to eventually make the EU ‘Europe’s’ sole ‘sovereign’ legal international entity. Thus, whilst international treaties constrain the sovereignty of the state in the name of mutual benefit, EU treaties destroy the state and in so doing seeks to create a new and alternative form of government.
The reason that sovereign Norway bemoans its lack of influence over the EU is the same reason Norway has always bemoaned its lack of influence over the rest of Europe. With the possible exception of the Viking period Norway is simply too small and thus too lacking in power to exert much influence – period. Britain is not Norway and its relative power would afford a sovereign Britain far more influence over the rest of Europe – EU or no EU – than Norway precisely because Britain is a powerful state. Chancellor Merkel acknowledged as much last week when she said that it was far too early to write the British off because Britain remains a “formidable” economic and military power.
At the end of the parrot sketch when farce has finally turned into complete absurdity Cleese says, “I’m not prepared to pursue my line of inquiry any longer as I think this is getting too silly”. The same could be said for Britain’s dead parrot Brexit debate.