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UK has two options: a people’s vote or Liechtenstein Plus

Fintan O’Toole: Brexit looks like it was written by Marx Brothers

Liechtenstein! As in the mountaintop microstate of 37,877 people. To appreciate the state that the whole Brexit project is likely to arrive at in the next few days, consider this: many of the sensible, decent people in British politics may by the end of this week be hoping to save their country by engineering an alliance with Liechtenstein. And not just an alliance either – what they're hoping for is an arrangement in which Liechtenstein will be an equal partner and will have a significant say in what Britain does in the future. And, to make all of this even more surreal, a say on what happens with the Irish Border.

Nobody talks much about the Liechtenstein option of course. They talk instead of Norway, and indeed of Norway Plus. Norway is a serious kind of country – Vikings, trolls, Ibsen, resistance to the Nazis, oil money, Ada Hegerberg cooly brushing off the idiot who asked her about twerking. But Norway Plus is also Liechtenstein Plus. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but I’m not sure a Brexit Plan B by any other name would smell less like old cod.

Hence we will be left with two possibilities: a people's vote with the option of staying in, or Liechtenstein Plus

There is, as we are about to see, no majority in the House of Commons for Theresa May’s Brexit deal. And, as will also become apparent, there is no majority for exiting the EU with no deal either. Hence we will be left with two possibilities: a people’s vote with the option of staying in, or Liechtenstein Plus. This second option is favoured by many thoughtful people who just want to get their country out of this mess with the least amount of damage. But I’m not quite sure they understand how bizarre it is and how much humiliation it involves.

Permission from Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein comes into it because Plan B involves the UK leaving the EU but joining (in fact rejoining) the European Free Trade Association and, through EFTA, the European Economic Area (EEA). The EEA is a kind of adjunct to the EU single market – its members are in the single market but not part of the EU's political structures. And the EEA has three members: Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. They are equal partners – Liechtenstein has the same weight in these arrangements as Norway does. It has a veto over what happens in the EEA.


So first of all, Britain would have to get Liechtenstein’s permission to join the EEA. And second, even if it did get into the EEA, it would need Liechtenstein’s approval every time it wanted to do something important like having a new EU regulation transposed into EEA market rules. This is of particular interest to us because if we are to maintain an open Border, this procedure would have to be done on a regular basis to insure that market regulations in the North maintained their alignment with the South. A Liechtenstein veto could cause us big problems.

‘Ruritanian charade’

Now, let us push this just a little bit further. My vast knowledge of the Liechtenstein constitution tells me that it grants a veto over all laws to His Serene Highness Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein, Duke of Troppau and Jägerndorf, Count of Rietberg, sovereign of the House of Liechtenstein and Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece. So here we are: having found it utterly intolerable to be “interfered with” by the EU and its Court of Justice, the British are wishing themselves into a situation in which their laws and regulations would be subject to the agreement of the hereditary owner of an Alp. Brexit finally becomes what JG Ballard, in refusing a CBE, called “a Ruritanian charade”.

The truth, which will surely begin to dawn in the next few days, is that there is no way forward with the present deal, no chance of renegotiating it substantially

But the real humiliation here is not that this is likely to happen. It is that it won't happen because even Liechtenstein won't agree to it. Nobody – not Norway, not Iceland, not His Serene Highness Hans-Adam II – wants to be stuck with the Brexit mess. It has reached the point where in order to stay alive it has to swallow more and more absurdities. And it has led to the very thing it was supposed to overcome. It was fuelled by imaginary humiliation and it is creating the real thing. It was bad enough in the 1960s when Britain's desire to join Europe was rebuffed by General De Gaulle. Now it is getting the bird from Norway, Iceland – and Liechtenstein.

The truth, which will surely begin to dawn in the next few days, is that there is no way forward with the present deal, no chance of renegotiating it substantially even if Theresa May were replaced by Jeremy Corbyn, no real political support for a suicidal no-deal exit and not even a viable Liechtenstein option. A general election in which Corbyn's "alternative" to May's deal is just another fantasy of leaving the EU while retaining all the benefits of membership cannot resolve anything because it cannot present a genuine choice. There is only one way out and that is to go back to the people. Those people know that every time they buy a train ticket they have to accept the terms and conditions. The terms and conditions of Brexit now look like they were written by the Marx Brothers.