Liberals Must Hijack Brexit

24/06/2016 16:16 | Updated 24 June 2016
dc1975 via Getty Images

At the close of the polls last night, it seemed almost unthinkable that Leave would win this momentous referendum. Opinion polls and betting markets were nigh on certain that the British public would vote to Remain in the European Union - but they did not.

It is my belief, and one that is shared by roughly half of voters, that our country is a poorer place today for this result. Protestations that we have "taken our country back" are washing over with a sense of bitter irony as Sinn Fein call for the reunification of Ireland, the SNP plot to secede Scotland from the UK and the Spanish government poke around the notion of joint sovereignty of Gibraltar.

It left a sour taste in my mouth to see Nigel Farage beaming as he basked in his dystopian rhetoric, bestowing yesterday as 'Independence Day' as if our relationship to the European Union, was as severe as the past colonisation practiced by the old Britain he purportedly loves so much. A man, and an ideology with no humility nor class in victory.

Despite the fact that our society feels more alienated and less inclusive today, it's important to remember that the vast majority of Brexiters do not subscribe to the views of the right-wing populists who noisily took over this debate. In fact, up to 30% of Liberal Democrat voters, by all accounts, the most pro-European mainstream party, backed a Brexit - and this gives us some cause for optimism in the post-referendum negotiation period.

For now, liberals must dust themselves off quickly and hijack the discussion over where our post-Brexit future lies. We, as a party and as an ideological bloc must support an agreement that seeks to emulate the EEA (European Economic Area) option in order to ensure as transient an exit as possible.

The EEA settlement would provide the UK with participation in the single market, most education and science programmes and freedom of movement - but with the option of an 'emergency brake'. It's vital that liberals put forward the case to keep immigration to the UK strong in order to protect our public services and open society.

This agreement also exempts nations from EU VAT Policy and the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies. Similarly, EEA nations are removed from Justice and Home Affairs policy, Common Defence policy and the European Court of Justice.

Contributions to the EU are still required but are lessened by the less integrated state of association. Traders will still be accountable to the laws of the EU's single market but will be better able to make Free Trade deals with emerging markets outside of the Union like Brazil, India and China.

For those fearful of future bail-outs of failing economies in the EU, like we previously saw with Greece, this agreement would exempt the UK from being a part of any financial rescue package. The sturdy establishment of the EEA would also mean that a transition to a new settlement with Europe could be made quicker, alleviating the strain of economic uncertainty on workers.

The EEA is not perfect, for example, it would exempt the United Kingdom from the European Convention of Human Rights, which is something the government should seek as an effective add-on to this set-up, however I am not optimistic of achieving this.

Regardless, these terms are not the ones many liberals envisaged being the best case scenario following yesterday's vote but this is the best way to soften the blow. We cannot let the right-wing populists drag us in to yet an uglier situation.

I am genuinely concerned about the UK's economy and place in the world but I am more concerned about the politics of fear and division savaging our peaceful and tolerant society. It is integral for the sake of the nation that liberals take the lead on Brexit negotiations and strive for the liberal model the EEA provides, keeping all four freedoms, including movement of people, intact.

It is important now to accept that the Remain camp has lost - no petition, no do-over will change that. This campaign and result has noticeably divided and damaged our country already - we cannot let it get any worse. The EEA option is the best one for our nation to emulate. Now, liberals must hijack Brexit and make it just for the sake of Remainers and the sake of our increasingly segregated society.