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Brexit: Hard Words, Soft Landing?

01/08/2017 11:58 BST | Updated 01/08/2017 11:58 BST

Last week, as I was retuning to my flat from the Law Centre at Aix-en-Provence in southern France, I decided to drop into the wine shop in my neighbourhood for a nice bottle of - very chilled - dry white wine.

As happens often, the owner of the shop struck up a conversation with me. When he found out that I had travelled to his town from London in order to deliver a few public talks, our conversation quite quickly drifted toward Brexit. Blunt in an endearingly French way, he informed me that we in the UK were stupid to pull out of the EU and that our former PM David Cameron had been reckless (his word in French was much spicier!) to go for a referendum that asked a question but never explained its consequences and therefore allowed the electorate to vote with their hearts and not their brains. If you Brits are as clever as you think you are, he intoned, you should have stayed in the EU bloc and then forged changes from within - rather than spend your time undermining the EU institutions.

Before I had an opportunity to interject with my own viewpoint, he cascaded his conversation further by explaining why France was also sick to the teeth of EU bureaucracy. However, he opined, France (despite Marine Le Pen and her FN Party) in its majority held tightly to the ideals of the EU. Everything else could be sorted out eventually. Emmanuel Macron, ne segued, might come across as smarmy or cocky given his 39 green years, but he will introduce reforms that will strengthen the EU. Unlike your bunch of smirking Brexiteers, he added sneeringly!

True, we voted to leave the EU. But we had no idea whatsoever what such an exit meant for us and for our way of life. A few charismatic politicians won 52% of us over with illusions - no, make that delusions - of post-colonial priapism and economic affluence that will make the UK an unbeatable global force again. Cameron was advised wrongly by his SpAds and we are now in a mess that is almost inextricable.

So what are our messy options to date? Let me allude to the 6 broad possibilities that have been enumerated and mooted by the likes of FT, The Guardian and The Huff Post. They range from hard to soft:

• No deal: The UK would no longer be bound by the EU treaties and there would be nothing to replace the thousands of international agreements stemming from it.

• Divorce-only agreement: The UK would strike an Article 50 agreement on its exit from the EU, with interim trade based on WTO rules. There will still be no agreement to replace EU membership.

• Limited tariff-free deal: Britain strikes a limited free-trade agreement for tariff-free trade in goods with the option to agree deals with other countries. However, there would be no guaranteed access to the EU market for the services sector.

• Far-ranging trade deal: Britain would dent its sovereignty and sign a comprehensive trade deal covering most aspects of trade. Some UK politicians would be loath to accept this outcome.

• Customs Union: Agreeing a new customs union would seek to smooth trade at the UK-EU border. It would allow Britain to negotiate its own deals for services, and agriculture, and set many domestic regulations but external goods tariffs and goods trade deals would be run by the EU.

• Single Market: This is the full enchilada! Were Britain to remain in the single market by retaining membership of the EEA, it would ensure continued regulatory harmony with the EU and tariff-free trade. This would mean that many services placed on the market in the country could be sold in any EU state. It could become the equivalent on the trade side to continued EU membership.

Following our General Election last June, it is clear that a 'softer' Brexit is now on the table. But what does this mean for businesses let alone ordinary men and women living in the UK or in the other 27 EU member-states?

Let me come back to my wine merchant.

The difference between him (and other continental Europeans) and many of us in the UK is that European citizens have by and large wedded themselves with the EU - warts and all. We in the UK have not ever since our accession in 1973: we tried to have our cake and eat it at the General Election but it backfired on us badly. What we are owed by our politicians now is some unspun candour. Mind you, we might need to tweak a few rules or seek exception from a few laws, but it would be absurd in my books at least to turn our backs on the largest single market next door to us.

As I think of the wine merchant bad-mouthing David Cameron, I recall the Scottish Bard Robert Burns and his quote from which John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" was coined, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry". Awry they might well go, but do we have the foresight and mettle to set it right? And will the parliamentary recess inject some wisdom into our politicians' minds so we do not crash out but land softly instead?