Why Dr Richard North, creator of “Flexcit”, thinks the PM must change her strategy

I’ve been writing these articles for the last fifteen months and one name that has constantly cropped up in the comments section of the MoneyWeek website is that of Dr Richard North.

North is a former adviser to the Europe of Democracies and Diversities, a grouping of Eurosceptic parties in Brussels, and a former senior figure in Ukip. He has developed a unique approach to Brexit that aims to deliver a path out of the EU while preserving as many of the benefits of the single market as possible. He calls this approach to leaving the EU “Flexcit”.

North emphasises that leaving the EU is “not an event, but a process that involves up to six stages” and that “it may take 20-30 years to fully adjust to life outside the EU”. He also emphasises that retaining membership of the wider European Economic Area (EEA) is “only one possible path”. However, he agrees that, as a first step, it would make sense to use the EEA as a template to build a bespoke agreement. Of course, there would still need to be a lot of negotiation over the protocols and annexes attached to the core deal, “since the exact wording of Norway’s agreement with the EU is very different from that of Lichtenstein and Iceland”.

However, it would still cut down the amount of work needed, and it would also ensure that the negotiations take place in the EEA council, rather than under Article 50. In practice, this would enable the UK to bypass many of those in Brussels, such as Michel Barnier, who want the EU to take a harder line with Britain. North also points out that, on immigration, the EEA agreement contains a safeguarding clause, article 112, which allows members to unilaterally suspend parts of the treaty, as Lichtenstein has done on various occasions. Overall, it seems to be “the perfect solution to the UK’s needs”.

In the longer run, North would like to see Brexit become an opportunity to refocus Europe around a much larger zone supporting free trade in goods and services, which was, after all, “the original intention of those who created the single market”, rather than political integration, which has dominated in the last 25 years.

Being a member of the EEA would also allow the UK to retake its place on international standards bodies, which have a big influence on regulations around the world. It would also give us flexibility to address those global problems that directly affect us, which we can’t currently do “because we’ve outsourced so much to the EU”.

One example of an issue that the UK would be better placed to address once it was in the EEA is the refugee crisis. The largest refugee camp isn’t in Calais or Turkey, says North, but Kenya. If we can make it easier for Kenyans (and other farmers in Africa) to export cut flowers – a major export – or do a trade deal with them (since we will be leaving the Common Agricultural Policy), it would not only reduce the need for economic migration, but make them more open to dealing with the problem at their end.

Sadly, North is deeply unimpressed with the government’s current approach, including Theresa May’s Florence speech. She “seems to have no idea of phase-one issues” and should take the EU at its word when it insists on addressing the financial settlement first. While he thinks that it is unlikely that the UK will be unable to get the EU down further than around £34bn on top of any transitional payments, he thinks that it may agree to accept payment over an extended period. After all, “when we originally joined, our payments were phased in gradually, so there is no reason that they can’t be phased out in a similar manner”.

North also thinks that May needs to be much more explicit about the role of the European Court of Justice in protecting the rights of expatriate citizens in the UK. A final issue is that of Ireland; North is worried that “any acceptable solution will be vetoed by the DUP”.

More generally, North thinks May “lacks empathy” and doesn’t realise that “Brussels can’t do a deal that would set a precedent for other trading partners” or “allow a backdoor into the single market”. While the EU will “be cautious in its response” he is confident that May’s proposals will be rejected, unless they are significantly improved. At the moment, however, it looks like “she’s blown it”.