In her Mansion House speech Theresa May said the first test in any Brexit deal was whether it respected the referendum, ‘it was a vote to take control of our borders, laws and money’. Was it? Nobody really seems to know. The truth is that there were a multitude of different reasons 17.4million Brits voted to leave the European Union and it would be impossible to distil them into a simple sound bite.
The array of different opinions may well have depended on who you were listening to during the referendum campaign. It seems to be often forgotten that although there was an official Leave campaign there were also many other campaigns. For example someone who frequently read blogs, posts and tweets by Labour Leave may have had different motivations to someone following Leave.EU. Both may have ticked the same box at the ballot but one was inspired to bring down EU corporatism and the other worried by uncontrolled immigration.
Some people even voted to leave because they believed we would get a better deal from the EU that way, that it would force the EU to change its ways. Indeed Michael Portillo said on the BBC’s This Week during the referendum that if people believe a vote to leave would result in us actually leaving they would ‘believe anything’. Boris Johnson hinted at something similar. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that some of the 17.4 million did not want to leave the EU at all but reform it.
All of these reasons for voting Leave inevitably feed in to different beliefs on how we leave. Someone who wanted to stop uncontrolled immigration would probably want to leave the Single Market. Someone who was passionate about free trade with our traditional allies may wish to stay in but leave the customs union.
The most logical approach in this situation would be to try and find a position that makes as many people in the country (including, let’s not forget them, the 16 million people who voted Remain) as satisfied as possible. For me the obvious route to take is rejoining the European Free Trade Association.
As the debate has become more and more polarised between ‘remoaners’ and ‘brexiteers’ the EFTA option has been branded a ‘soft Brexit’ (how ridiculous the language in this debate has become) and the Leave camp (some of whom were entirely open to an EFTA option before) have boxed themselves into a corner and dug the trenches around a ‘clean break’ Brexit.
It is not hard to understand how this has happened. In the wake of the referendum result the remain camp immediately adopted a sneering, condescending attitude to Leave voters branding them old and uneducated. There was immediate talk of how Brexit can be stopped. This quickly slammed shut the window of compromise that was being held open by figures such as Daniel Hannan who was derided by the BBC for suggesting a Norway type model may be a sensible compromise given the slim margin of victory. Both sides ended up retreating to their corners.
At that time the situation required a strong and decisive Prime Minister to unite the two sides and argue for a sensible compromise. Unfortunately Theresa May was shown to lack both of these qualities. She was unable to provide any vision other than the vacuous ‘Brexit means Brexit’ sound bite that allowed others to define its meaning and divisions to grow.
An EFTA based approach would have been and still is the most logical path for the UK to follow. It has something in it for both Leave and Remain camps. We would step outside the political institutions of the EU and its ever closer union and ever encroaching ECJ. Indeed polling has consistently shown the British public to generally be in favour of a trading relationship with Europe but not a political union. We would however preserve our economic ties and not put our economy at risk in any way, indeed I believe it would thrive.
Let us be crystal clear that by joining EFTA we would be free from the most contentious areas of EU membership, EFTAs own website states EFTA/EEA countries are exempt from:
- Common agriculture and fisheries policies [CAP, CFP]
- Customs Union;
- CCP common trade policy;
- CFSP common foreign and security policy;
- Justice and home affairs;
- Direct and indirect taxation;
- EMU economic and monetary union.
Indeed the areas where we would still have to apply EU law (this is if we remained in the European Economic Area) would be mostly technical standards. Now most of these standards are actually agreed at an international level and then the EU interprets them into their own law. Once we leave the EU we will regain our own seat at the top table of these international organisations (such as the WTO) rather than having an EU bureaucrat there in our place. It is arguable that our influence would actually increase. Even if this doesn’t convince you, consider that Norway only adopts about 9% of EU laws anyway and with considerable say over how they are implemented.
We would leave the ECJ, and join the EFTA court which is a much less intrusive, more ‘sovereignty friendly’ court where we would have one (or probably two) judges sitting. We would be outside the Customs Union and free to sign our own trade deals. I’ve heard so many people scoff at our ability to sign free trade deals, but consider that EFTA Iceland is the only European country to sign an Free Trade Agreement with China. How much more could we achieve?
Finally let me turn briefly to the immigration question because this is often seen as a sticking point of the EFTA model. First of all I’d repeat that given the close nature of the referendum result there is a need for compromise and polls do not show that immigration was the driving factor for Brexit, sovereignty was. Nevertheless it clearly was a factor but I believe the concern is more around people moving here and getting something for nothing.
Frankly speaking the rules around freedom of movement do not allow for unhindered movement of people simply to claim benefits or healthcare. They allow for freedom of workers. For example in Iceland after three months of working an EU citizen must apply for a residency permit and show proof of health insurance. We could apply such rules ourselves. Or look at EFTA Switzerland which has a free movement agreement with the EU, but those staying longer than 3 months will need a permit and show evidence that they will not need to claim welfare. Therefore those who stay will be those paying their way.
There is also an alternative possibility that the UK could negotiate some sort of quota for the amount of EU immigrants we receive. There is precedent for this in Lichtenstein, another EFTA country, where they are able to restrict the numbers coming each year. It would be difficult but not beyond the bounds of possibility that the UK could negotiate something similar following existing rules and precedents.
Joining EFTA does not resolve everything instantly, there would still be tough negotiations to be had, not least about Northern Ireland. It would not mean simply picking an existing model, either Norway or Switzerland (two of the most prosperous countries on earth in any event), we would still need to negotiate our own bespoke terms. EFTA would however provide the perfect base for a deal. We would guarantee our economic prosperity, whilst still widening our global trade links. We would regain control of our laws and regain our place at international top tables. It may, above all, heal the divides in the country. It would be the sort of Brexit, that I for one, voted for.