Weighing up the Norway, Switzerland and Turkey options. Photo: Getty
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An EU explainer for the easily bored: what happens if we leave?

Doom, whisky, and getting lost in mazes: what are the options for the UK flouncing out of the European Union?

It's some as-yet-unspecified time in 2017. I'm in the ballot box – maybe.

What? Well, Estonia's had online voting for ten years, about a third of votes are cast online via an app, and it's popular with younger people. So who know, maybe we could catch up with them. Although then young people might actually vote...

Fine. I've downloaded the app, and I'm ready! In or out??!?!

Of what? The EU, right? Yes, although don't forget there's the "renegotiation" first so the EU might look quite different.

OK, so we've got whatever the EU looks like as "in" – what's "out"? A very good question. There's four main options. Let's start with the Norwegian model.

Let's! OMG Scandinavians are soooo buff :) No, not that kind of model. Norway is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which means it has access to the single market of the 28 EU member states.

Great, we can keep selling all those cars. Yes, and applying all the rules of the single market, ie. free movement of goods, people capital and services. Norway sell a lot of gas, oil and salmon to the EU – Vidar Helgesen, their minister for EU affairs, reckons the country provides Europe with 23m seafood meals a day, and they apply ALL the rules as well. But they don't get a say in making them.

All the rules? The vast majority. Agriculture is the big exception. According to Mr Helgesen, during the past 20 years, Norway has incorporated more than 10,000 EU rules into the EEA Agreement: roughly five acts of EU legislation for each day the Norwegian parliament has been sitting. It also has to pay into the EU budget.

Oh. To use an old Brussels chestnut, if you're not at the table, you're on the menu. And, to state the obvious, the UK doesn't have a bajillion squillion barrels of oil. Norway does.

OK, how about option two: Switzerland? You can make your own cuckoo-clock jokes: Switzerland has a close relationship with the EU based on a series of bilateral agreements, including a free trade deal signed in 1972. Switzerland is the EU's fourth largest trading partner, while the EU is Switzerland’s largest.

Sounds great! It's tempting. But they only get access to parts of the single market. And that doesn't include services, which is the part which is most interesting for the UK. Then last year, in a referendum, the country narrowly voted to reintroduce immigration quotas. After that, EU officials said Switzerland can't “cherry-pick” from the treaties.

So what happens? If the EU-Switzerland relationship were on Facebook, it'd be under "It's complicated". Politicians have until 2017 to figure out what to do. Any solution could set a precedent for what happens with a post-breakup UK. And they still pay a lot to the EU.

Alright. Option three? Turkey. It's in a customs union. So we could trade some goods without tariffs, etc, but not have to pay membership fees or bother with immigration. It was the first step in an EU accession program that stalled in 2002, and again, there's zero influence on anything the EU actually does.

Doesn't sound great. Also, bear in mind any of these options depend on the EU agreeing in a post-withdrawal negotiation – a bit like getting a divorce and then asking if you can still use the Wi-Fi, the bathroom three days a week and have your ex's loyalty-card points.

We could eavesdrop while using the bathroom. Right, all of these options rely on applying EU rules in the areas where you get the benefits, which is logical enough. If we left, those rules, standards, and plans would be decided without us in the room.

Unprecedented! No, it's not. We're not in the euro, and the countries that are still have meetings. So the UK Treasury used to formally instruct its permanent representation to send someone to sit outside the door "just in case they heard anything", according to someone who'd know.

What were they expecting? Nobody knows. In practice it meant senior British officials sitting in the corridor outside the room on floor 50 of the Council into the small hours of the morning. Totes embarrassing.

Floor 50? It's not that tall. It's just the rooms in all the EU-buildings are maze-like. Seriously, it's easier to find your way in space.

Currency union, borders, legal negotiations after an acrimonious split... this is reminding me of something... Right. Remember the Scottish referendum? And how the Scottish government said it’d like to stay in the EU, even while the Commission was all like “no you'd have to reapply like newbies”?

Nightmare. It would have been. As the Scotch Whisky Association points out, "the application of the EU's trade environment means Scotch has become more accessible to a far wider audience". It keeps a close eye on EU laws to make sure single malts can be sold across the single market. "Doubly important, as EU laws are sometimes used as the benchmark for other countries when considering new legislation," it adds. Again, businesses would still have to comply with EU standards to export goods there.

What if we just leave, completely? We could. We'd get a seat at the World Trade Organization, where we're currently represented as part of the EU. We could set up a free-trade deal with anyone who wanted one –although would you want to sign up with a country that had just flounced out of  a 28-country free-trade bloc? And there'd be total control of borders.

So that'll be option four. Yes, and Chris Patten summed it up nicely in a lecture in Oxford 15 years ago. "’Sovereignty’ – in the sense of unfettered freedom of action – is a nonsense. A man, naked, hungry and alone in the middle of the Sahara Desert is free in the sense that no one can tell him what to do. He is sovereign, then. But he is also doomed."

Frances Robinson has been covering the EU since 2006. Previously a staffer at the Wall Street Journal, she returned to the UK after a decade abroad to talk and write about the UK-EU relationship. 

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser