Some thoughts on that Raab tweet and the quiet shift to Soft Brexit

Paul Cotterill
4 min readJul 22, 2020

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[Update 18/11/2020] A lot going on with supposed deadlines, but overall choreography suggests a shift towards some kind of long grass No Deal in Name Only, with a form of words that allows the WTO to accept that a new transition extension is formal enough to let things ride, for the UK govt to deny i’s actually a transition, and for the EU not to be too bothered what it’s called in the knowledge that long grass grows longer.

[Update 18/11/2020] News release from EFTA of November 10th suggests back channels with the UK continue, though the link priorities for next six months under current Swiss chair rotation suggest that Switzerland not happen that one or more other countries in EFTA have been getting a bit unilateral.

[Update 07/09/2020]: the UK government announcement that it will renege on the Withdrawal Agreement if it does not get the post-transition deal it wants is line with the theory, set out below, that some in and around government arelooking for a way to meet the substance of its Northern Ireland obligations without actually having to admit it has done so, though this is only one of several possible interprtations of what is on the face of it a wholly reckless act that will trash what remains of the UK’s reputation as an honest participant in international affairs.]

[Update 30/09/2002] David Frost’s tweet on a fisheries deal with Norway is, I think, supportive of my case. They need A deal for presentation, not a deal about fish and stuff.]

So hear me out.

The other day, Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary and all-round duffer, went on the twitter to announce that negotiations had been started on a trade deal with the four countries that are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA): Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland.

Not very exciting in itself, but what is odd is that there is no announcement about this on the Department for International Trade website, as you would normally expect.

So Conspiracy Me is getting to thinking….

Is it just possible that some of the sane civil servants in the Dept for International Trade are quietly plotting a course not to a trade agreement with EFTA, but actually to some kind of membership/associate membership deal which would allow us, at the very last, to keep relations with the EU via the existing or perhaps adapted EEA treaty between the EU and EFTA.

It sounds a bit mad, but the fact that only Raab has let on — perhaps speaking out of turn on a thing he’s not even minister for — suggests that there may be some kind of back channel workings here.

Those channels would probably need to keep the actual minister, Truss, in the dark at least for now, but there may be some hope that, as the desperate situation becomes even more desperate and the utter chaos and shortages loom large iin November, there might be a ready made rescue plan to wheel out, dressed up for Tory consumption as a free trade deal, but in reality a back door back to the single market.

Of course, it will cost an arm and a leg. EFTA will know the desperation, and the membership fee required will be a figure you could, say, stick on the side of a bus, not least because financial service might have to go via EFTA, and this would dwarf other aspects of current trade.

And of course — the biggie — it doesn’t of itself resolve the Customs Union mess, writ large for Northern Ireland but also more generally. That’s why I never favoured the EEA/EFTA route, and instead wanted a bespoke CU/SM deal.

But it would allow freedom of movement of persons back into the equation (no doubt called something else and with a stress on the restrictions on residence that already apply anyway), and in reality with that could come a more relaxed customs operation (as Switzerland has, with its mostly online customs process but occasional checks), so it’d be better than nothing.

In the shorter term, it may also allow the UK government to meet the substance of its customs obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement, which will involve infrastructure, on the basis that this infrastructure is needed to meet the terms of an EFTA agreement, and in a way which keeps its lunatic backbench fringe from revolting until it is too late.

I’m probably doing wishful thinking here, but maybe, just maybe, when reality reality finally hits, perhaps even after January 1st, when the shortages get even worse.

Tbe be honest, I’ve no problem with it all being hush-hush at the moment if that’s what it takes, and Labour would be well advised to keep quiet for now, while making sure they know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes.

Here’s hoping for an vestige of sanity.

And thanks to James Mackenzie for getting me thinking this through.

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Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.