A week is a long time in politics – as we know full well amidst these dizzyingly turbulent times. So we can safely presume that the two years or so that lie ahead as we extricate ourselves from the EU will consist of countless unpredictable ebbs and flows.
Continental economic turmoil is a given. Not just in Greece, but now Italy where the domestic banking system is close to collapse.
Heaven knows the political impact of migration across Europe whilst we are still EU members. Security and defence concerns seem set to raise internal tensions to new heights.
The instinctive reflex of many in Brussels reacting to the UK’s Brexit vote will be to retrench. This risks widening the fracture between the interests of Eurozone and non-Eurozone nations.
It also provides an opportunity for the UK in its exit negotiations – and beyond. The deal we are able to secure may yet form the basis of an arm’s length associate membership akin to the EEA which in time will stand as the precedent that other non-Eurozone nations will aspire to follow.
It is these countries who rank potentially as our most reliable allies in the troublesome, protracted exit negotiations that will soon commence.
Since last summer, I have served as Chairman of our Party’s International Office, and have spent the past year strengthening the Conservatives’ relationships with our widely ranging sister parties across Europe – important alliances for the UK’s future, especially as we chart our pathway out of the EU.
All of the European politicians I spoke to wanted Britain to remain a member of the European Union, but it was in the Nordic countries that I found greatest support for our continued friendship even post-Brexit. They see Britain’s view of the EU as the one closest to their own, namely as a vast free trading bloc that must reject federal aspirations and embrace a competitiveness agenda if it is to thrive.
Norway, of course, is already outside the EU, having twice rejected in a referendum the chance to join. Meanwhile the primary reason other Nordic nations so avidly wished us to stay is that the UK has historically been the most vociferous in asking the awkward questions and pushing for precisely the kinds of reform that they as mid-sized EU players would like to see.
We should not forget that Denmark and Sweden also both sit outside the Eurozone. Indeed if opinion polls are to be believed, their citizens are even more averse to joining the single currency than the UK public ever was.
As a consequence they share our longstanding desire to formalise and protect the status of non-Eurozone members. As our Brexit negotiations develop, many Swedes and Danes will seek our continued support as a powerful advocate for a two-tier EU membership that protects the rights and requirements of those nations outside the single currency.
It is worth noting that while Finland is currently within the Eurozone, there is now a substantial political movement both within and outside the nation’s ruling coalition pushing for withdrawal – so-called ‘Fixit’. Finland’s economy has performed worse than any other Eurozone country over the past three years.
Indeed since 2008 the Swedish economy has grown by eight per cent, while the Finnish one has shrunk by six per cent. Before too long, all Nordic EU members may speak as one in promoting a two-tier Europe.
It may have escaped many Brits’ attention that only last December, Denmark held its own domestic referendum on the EU, specifically on whether to change the status of Denmark’s EU opt-outs on security and justice matters. Fifty-three per cent of voters rejected the proposed change and the forces of Euroscepticism in Denmark have advanced since then.
Now that the UK electorate has chosen to Leave, watch even mainstream Danish politicians quietly take a lead in driving forward a new agenda for reform at EU-level that will address the clear unease of Danish voters towards the European project.
In all Nordic countries, there is deep concern about wide-scale immigration. With the rise of the far right even in a famously socially liberal, open society like Sweden, there is a real risk that the arrival of vast numbers of migrants without the infrastructure and systems in place will undermine the social compact.
When I first visited Sweden last October, I detected little mainstream appetite to review their membership of the Schengen border-free zone or introduce any substantial changes to cope with the migrant influx.
Yet by the time of my most recent trip in May, a border control was in place as I travelled on the Oresund Bridge from Copenhagen to Malmo. Even the most entrenched view can change quickly. We live in volatile times.
Integration of migrants matters – the Swedish ruling class fear that the more entrepreneurial migrants are moving away from Sweden because they find the regulatory climate too restrictive, leaving behind only those with the poorest language and employment skills and the greatest need of state support.
This increasing linkage between migration and welfare is being played out across the EU, and there is now palpable enthusiasm from the Finns and Swedes to learn more about the UK’s welfare reform programme in general. I believe before and after we leave the EU future attempts to change welfare eligibility for non-citizens will attract greater support from this key quarter.
Finally, we should not underestimate the intense concern among Nordic states about increasing aggression by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. For the first time since the 1940s, all four centre-right and centrist parties are committed to Sweden joining NATO and Finland is also reassessing its position to move beyond cooperation to fully fledged membership.
This would place pressure on the public finances of both countries given the two per cent requirement on defence spending, but they are starting to believe it is a price worth paying to deter Russian incursions into their territory.
They see the UK as key in making the case to the United States and NATO for ongoing and active involvement in the Baltic region. Our role in this regard gives us critical leverage for any future moment when we require support from our Nordic (and Baltic) allies.
It is vital to our national interest that we not only respect the verdict of the British people, but regard the negotiations that begin in earnest as the opening of a new chapter of sustained engagement with – but outside – the European Union.
In other words, now that our nation has declared our intention to leave, we need to say farewell to the ambivalent and at times antagonistic relationship with the EU. In the years ahead let’s pledge to engage with this institution, seek out allies and make it work for the UK as a continental neighbour.
Once the dismay dies down we will also find more support than we might imagine for advancing a global agenda on competitiveness, trade and service provision.