Literary comprehension is one of the skills that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) test as part of the application process for the FCO fast-track programme. Presumably this is because understanding the meaning of words is more important than interpreting what you think the words might imply.
If the response of the British legacy media to the comments of German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, are anything to go by, British journalists would almost universally fail any such test. Reported in Der Spiegel, Schauble’s intervention comes at a time when the idea of using the EEA as a post-exit staging post—which would allow Britain to leave the political and judicial arrangements of the EU while remaining in the Single Market—is beginning to be seriously discussed, in spite of Vote Leave protestations to the contrary.
What the British public may understand but which the Vote Leave campaign and the bubble-based commentariat affect not to is that voting to leave the EU is not the same as electing Vote Leave. Indeed, the rationale that Vote Leave used to use to justify its refusal to present referendum voters with a credible Brexit plan was that only the UK government has the power to determine “what Leave looks like”.
The referendum itself is advisory and the question is commendably specific. There should be no confusion about what the referendum question is asking: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Post leave vote the position of the UK government will be determined by a parliamentary process and the need to reconcile the two sides of the debate; Leave voters will not call all of the shots and Remain voters will not be ignored. It is their country too.
The need for reconciliation and a positive future relationship with our EU partners points almost ineluctably to a phased approach to EU exit, embracing the idea of transitional arrangements which retain Single Market membership for a time, at least until the UK has had the chance to rebuild its policy-making capabilities in vitally important areas such as trade, aid, agriculture, fisheries, energy, the environment, justice and home affairs.
To that end, what did Schauble actually say? Asked about the possibility of Britain leaving the EU and remaining in the Single Market—as an aside, the fact that this is so frequently raised as a possibility really puts the lie to the idea that the EU and the Single Market are synonymous—Schauble said:
That won’t work. It would require the country to abide by the rules of a club from which it currently wants to withdraw. If the majority in Britain opts for Brexit, that would be a decision against the single market. In is in. Out is out. One has to respect the sovereignty of the British people.
He did not say that an EEA transition would not be available. What he said was that we the British people would not want it. I rather think that we will make our own minds up about that.
The EU will not do Britain any favours in the exit negotiation but it will act in its own self-interest—and the EU has a massive strategic and selfish interest in continuing to trade with Britain on the same terms as today. Provided that we are willing to compromise on freedom of movement in the short-term, there should be little difficulty coming to a suitable transitional arrangement, pending further discussion on a longer-term settlement that is better suited to a country of the size and power of the United Kingdom.
In the event of any “funny business”, Britain would even be able to draw upon the EU treaties. The EU is a rules-based organisation bound by treaty and convention to negotiate in good faith. As part of that, Article 50 commits the EU to “negotiate” with any departing EU Member State; Article 8 commits the EU to a “good neighbourliness” policy “founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation”; and Article 3 affirms the EU’s committment to promoting “free and fair trade”.
The EU will drive a hard bargain but it will not step outside the framework of its own treaties and there would be consequences for the EU if it did. So, yes, there is a viable post-exit deal which protects Britain’s economic security, jobs and investment, and yes, we can be confident of achieving an amicable separation.
There is no way to get everything that we might want at the point of exit—40 years of political and economic integration could not and should not (read: won’t) be undone overnight—but the opportunity to revitalise British domestic politics and reimagine Britain’s place in the world is too great to ignore.
A confident step into the light of an EFTA/EEA type relationship takes us out of the EU and from there we can carry on reforming our relationship through active participation in the multilateral trading system and through demands for greater democratic accountability at home.