Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg during first of the two debates on Europe. Photo: Getty
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Why does Nigel Farage want us to follow the lead of countries that are smaller than Bristol?

Eurosceptics harp on about the need for democracy. But the Swiss, like the Norwegians and the Icelanders, choose to eat food from a table at which they have no seat.

“If it is good enough for Iceland to do it,” Nigel Farage remarked in the first of his two televised debates with Nick Clegg, “I’m damned certain the British with 64 million can do even better.” The Ukip leader was referring to a free trade agreement that the Icelandic government signed with China in April 2013, despite the tiny Nordic country not being a member of the EU. Is this what proud British Euroscepticism has been reduced to – comparisons with Iceland? Together with Norway (population: five million) and Liechtenstein (population: 36,000) – those two powerhouses of the global economy – Iceland (population: 326,000) is a member of the snazzily named European Economic Area. The EEA is, in essence, the faux-EU, the geopolitical equivalent of a knock-off Gucci handbag. Rather than having all of the pros of EU membership with none of the cons – as some British Eurosceptics disingenuously suggest – EEA membership guarantees some of the pros and most of the cons.

Take Norway, often cited by the anti-EU brigade as a possible model for Britain. Despite being outside the EU, Norway has had to implement 75 per cent of its laws – 6,000 pieces of legislation. “We have been more compliant than many EU member countries,” the premier Erna Solberg, leader of the Conservative Party, has confessed. (In the 1990s, Norway was known as the “fax democracy”, with Brussels simply faxing new directives for the Norwegians to follow.)

It’s not a cheap deal, either. Norway’s total financial contribution to the EU each year is about €340m – which, per capita, works out to be slightly higher than the UK’s.

As for the “free movement” of workers that so upsets Tory backbenchers, the non-EU Norway, like the non-EU Iceland, is a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, which scrapped internal borders – unlike the UK, an EU member, which opted out. Is it any wonder that a government-commissioned report concluded in 2012 that Norway had seen “extensive Europeanisation” over the past two decades and that it was an “illusion” to believe it was outside of the EU?

Forget Norway, then. How about the wealthy, dynamic, free-market Switzerland (population: eight million), which arranges its own bilateral deals with all its trading partners, including the EU? The Swiss negotiate on an individual, case-by-case basis and are under no obligation to implement all of the EU’s internal market legislation. What’s not to like? Boris Johnson is so keen on the so-called Swiss model that he coined the term “Britzerland”.

But wait. First, Switzerland has a free trade agreement in goods with the EU but no agreement on services – including, astonishingly, on financial services. Remember that the UK accounts for a third of the EU’s wholesale finance industry. Want to try selling the Swiss option to the City of London now? No? I didn’t think so.

In 2009, the Swiss government ack­nowledged: “The existing [EU] barriers to market access place Switzerland at an economic disadvantage.” It added: “Switzerland loses out in terms of jobs, value creation and tax receipts.”

Second, whatever happened to no taxation without representation? Although it is outside the EU and outside the EEA, too, Switzerland contributes about €450m a year to the EU budget.

Third, Swiss sovereignty is overrated. The country relies on roughly 120 separate bilateral agreements with the EU and it is expected to adopt every single EU regulation in each of those areas – again, without any say on their shape, structure or content.

Eurosceptics harp on about the need for democracy. But the Swiss, like the Norwegians and the Icelanders, choose to eat food from a table at which they have no seat. They have no spots on the European Commission, no members of the European Parliament, no invitations to the Council of Ministers, no judges on the European Court of Justice. Yet, to varying degrees, they submit to EU legislation over which they have no votes, no vetoes and very little influence.

The simple truth is that whether the UK is inside the EU or out, we’ll have to follow EU rules and regulations. Eurosceptics say they like the EU’s single market but don’t like the EU’s regulations. What they seem unable – or unwilling – to understand is that there is no single market without regulations; it is the regulations that make it a single market, rather than a continent-wide free-for-all.

And it is the single market that gives EU member states power, clout and influence on a global scale. Do we want to negotiate with the Chinas and Russias of the world as part of a 28-member bloc of 500 million people? Or quit the biggest single market in human history in order to emulate Iceland, a country with a population smaller than Bristol? Eurosceptics bridle at being called “Little Englanders”. Yet their obsession with the likes of Norway, Iceland and Switzerland suggests the label may be an understatement. Tiny Englanders, perhaps?

The EU is far from perfect. It does need to change – to become less austerity-focused and neoliberal, for a start. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy needs reforming and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement with the US, which will empower unelected corporations at the expense of elected governments, needs rewriting. But you don’t win a fight by leaving the ring. You get in, stay in and keep fighting your corner.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”