Britain had the chance to secure a soft Brexit, retaining access to the single market, while escaping freedom of movement, Nick Clegg has revealed.
Speaking at a How to: Academy event this week which No Majesty attended, the former Deputy Prime Minister claimed that a compromise was being worked on in 2016 by top EU officials, in preparation for an approach by Theresa May, after the decision was made by Britain to leave the EU.
The compromise would have allowed freedom of movement to be curtailed in the case of European migrants entering the UK, a key issue in the leave campaign’s wish list and something that had been viewed as impossible without a ‘hard Brexit’.
According to Mr Clegg, officials in Berlin were working hard on the compromise in the belief that such a concession would enable the UK to take the so-called ‘Norway option’, where a country remains in the single market through membership of EFTA but is not an EU member state. They were baffled when no approach came from the British government. Instead, negotiations were entered into with the mindset that Britain would not just leave the EU, but do it in the most economically disruptive way possible.
The former Deputy PM said that he had spoken to “a top Brussels official dealing with Brexit”. This source told Mr Clegg that he or she had been “working with top officials in Berlin to produce a new package of changes to freedom of movement as a concession to Theresa May.” Mr Clegg reported the source as saying “We expected that she would privately reach out to us to find some way to improve upon the package of reforms negotiated by David Cameron”. Clegg added: “no one reached out to Angela Merkel or to Hollande or anyone.”
Freedom of movement is central to the heart of Brexit for many voters who feel that, for Brexit to mean Brexit, Britain has to ‘take back control’ of its borders. Despite being somewhat unclear in recent months, Theresa May’s strategy during negotiations has always stuck close to this key emotional area, implying that a ‘hard Brexit’ is the only way to preserve such freedoms.
If Mr Clegg’s sources are right, the UK’s trajectory towards the most extreme of possible exits from the EU was not inevitable, but rather wholly preventable and unexpected from the point of view of the EU’s leaders.
Nick Clegg’s argument is that the government’s actions in interpreting the narrow result of the referendum as a mandate to jump ship from the EU rather than pursuing a more moderate path were misguided. “I think it is one of the many misjudgments that have occurred. It is just another one of the twists and turns of the sorry saga where British leadership was absent and we desperately needed people to act with imagination and ingenuity, in those immediate weeks and months after the referendum” he commented.
The negotiations continue. Nick Clegg’s book, How to Stop Brexit, is out now.