World View: EU can adapt to complexities of British exit

A variegated Brexit in which regions retain closer ties to EU should not be problematic

Scottish First Minister  Nicola Sturgeon suggests Scotland could be accommodated in an EU  half-way house akin to Norway, while the rest of the UK adopts a “hard” Brexit. Photograph:  Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggests Scotland could be accommodated in an EU half-way house akin to Norway, while the rest of the UK adopts a “hard” Brexit. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images


There was a time in the earliest years of the history of the EU/EEC/EC when you were either in or out. And if you were in, you took the whole package, lock stock and barrel. There was no such thing as being a little bit pregnant. Then, to say “Brexit means Brexit” – though no-one ever did – would have been to express a perfectly clear, unambiguous statement.

Not so these days. Fluidity is the rule. These days the multiplicity of meanings of the once-simple concept of “membership” is tearing British Leavers and Remainers apart and bewildering everyone else. And the dichotomy between “hard” and “soft” Brexit barely scratches the surface of that complexity.

So, when Charlie Flanagan asks that in the Brexit negotiations the EU treats Northern Ireland as a special case, when MEP Brian Hayes talks about “associate membership” for the region, when the SDLP asks for a “unique legal status” for the North, or Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP says he is looking for a special deal for the island that would allow free movement of people and goods, none are breaking entirely new EU ground.

Half-way house

Nicola SturgeonScotland

Her proposal, which her former leader, Alex Salmond, recently touted heavily while on a Dublin visit as a model for the North (and even for London and Gibraltar), dovetails neatly with Irish interests in ensuring that our Border remains as permeable and soft as it has been. The difficult borders then become those between Scotland and England, and England/Wales and Ireland, while Ireland, North and South, and Scotland would retain free travel and trade between them.

Arguably the most profound qualitative change in the architecture of the EU in the last two decades, comparable in significance to its massive enlargement and the creation of the euro, is the embrace of a new method of construction: what has been variously known as “variable geometry” or in the 1997 Amsterdam treaty, a system of “enhanced co-operation”.

In essence, the idea that member-states can integrate at their own pace, picking and choosing the bits that they want, allowing the most enthusiastic to forge ahead as others catch up at their own speed. Or never catch up at all. The UK, for example, opted out of the euro, social policy (at one stage), Schengen, and justice co-operation, while Ireland maintains its reserve on defence.

The psychological shift in ending what was feeding integration gridlock was crucial, as The Economist wrote of the UK: “As one former minister puts it, the old policy was to drive in the fast lane but as slowly as possible, holding everybody else back. Now the [UK]government is happy to pull over and let the others accelerate away, especially if that is deemed necessary to shore up the euro.”

Multiple forms

But even that distinction is blurred. Norway, for example, negotiates with the EU through Efta on how it should amend its laws to conform with the single market. Rules are not simply handed down from Brussels. And it pays in to the EU budget on a scale comparable to member states – its annual access-to-the-single-market bill currently runs to 86 per cent of the UK per capita net contribution.

The EU’s variable geometry consists in a wide and expanding range of types of membership and external association, and encompasses a wide range of decision-making/negotiating regimes that devolve authority to member states, citizens (through “subsidiarity” principles enshrined in treaties), and to sub-state entities like regions, which play a part in a system of shared responsibility in administering their own EU-funded grants.

Recognition of the importance of distinct regional development and self-government is hardwired into the EU architecture, a counterbalance to Brussels and nation-state decision-making hegemony; very much part of the broader notion of variable geometry. So, in principle, the idea of a variegated Brexit in which Brexiting regions go their own separate way to retain closer ties should not be problematic. Nor indeed the idea of regions, as opposed to states, joining Efta, although not yet provided for in its convention.

This, complex as it may be, after all, is the shape of the future EU.