A rousing speech on the dangers of Swedish nationalism is a bit of a turn-off. Photo: Getty
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2am in a gay bar in Stockholm is the best time to discuss the NHS

If you’re a Scene Lesbian, whenever you’re abroad, you feel obligated to have a quick look at what gays do for fun wherever you are.

There’s nothing sexier than socialised health care. Free education comes close but state-funded hospitals are the welfare state’s lacy knickers. Possibly. OK, maybe not. But it’s around 2am and I’m in a gay bar in Stockholm, discussing the NHS with a Norwegian woman. Ms Oslo is in her mid-forties; with her cropped blonde hair and polo shirt, she’s the sort of 1990s tennis lesbian I hardly ever get a chance to speak to in London, mostly because we inhabit different parts of the Scene.

According to my slapdash pre-Stockholm-trip googling, Torget is Stockholm’s version of somewhere like GAY in London: well established, cheesy and reasonably friendly. I’m the youngest person in it.

“So, how long have you been in Sweden?” I ask Ms Oslo, hoping to steer the conversation towards something more discussable over thumping Europop.

“Seven years now,” she says.

“Wow. So I’m guessing you like it here.” (Keep it boring.)

“It’s nice,” she begins. “I can’t stand the Swedes, though. Bunch of Nazis.”

I feel a Holocaust conversation brewing.

“Really?”

Why am I encouraging her?

In some of the best English I’ve ever heard, Ms Oslo proceeds drunkenly to outline the history of the Swedish far right – from Nazi collaboration to the various modern-day nationalist movements.

Ten minutes later, to the music of “Dancing Queen” (really), I’m trying to examine the chain of events that led to a Norwegian woman and me shouting about fascism in a Swedish gay bar.

If you’re a Scene Lesbian (even a reluctant one like me), whenever you’re abroad, you feel obligated to have a quick look at what gays do for fun wherever you are. There’s always a flicker of hope that you are about to strike glittering gay gold.

I was optimistic about Sweden. I imagined a rainbow-kissed utopia of tall, liberal Norse women: possibly the kind of thing Hitler would have had in mind, if he were a left-wing lesbian. Perhaps I was hoping for an army of gay Saga Noréns (the blunt bombshell from The Bridge). I’d let them take me hiking in pine forests. We’d drink from Thermoses together.

As it goes, I can’t see myself having a laugh in the wilderness with Ms Oslo. All this Nazi chat has me edging towards the toilets, where I’ll need to devise an escape plan, possibly by way of the window like in films. She’s affable, as is the Stockholm gay scene as far as I can see. But I’ve always wanted to steal into the night. And, with Ms Oslo still delivering a rousing speech on the dangers of Swedish nationalism, that’s exactly what I do.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.