During the referendum campaign, Stronger In said that seeking to rejoin EFTA in order to participate in the EEA agreement would leave the UK, like Norway, with “no say” over “EU rules”.
Post-referendum, that mantra was taken up by the “hard Brexit” crowd. Am I the only person who finds that strange?
The pretexts that are offered for opposing an EFTA/EEA transition now are practically identical to those that were offered during the campaign: money, regulation and immigration.
The “hard Brexiteers” say that participating in the EEA means paying into the EU budget, which it does not. Called on that one, they shift to saying that the EEA costs too much and that the UK would be better off without the “burdensome” regulation they associate with the Single Market. Presumably, these people are proposing a cost-free alternative? It is impossible to know; the “hard Brexit” crowd are long on criticism and short on ideas.
Free trade agreements, especially those of the “deep and comprehensive” variety apparently favoured by the May government involve shared bureaucracy, for which somebody has to pay. Furthermore, Britain’s domestic regulatory and administrative agencies will almost certainly have to expand as policy-making powers are brought back under the UK umbrella. Those also cost money.
In short, any cost-savings that accrue from not having to pay directly into the EU budget will not be saved or made available for spending on the NHS. They will have to be reinvested in many of the same activities that are currently outsourced to the EU. Indeed, many of those activities would be even better handled at a local level. What and how powers should be dispersed is the kind of question Brexit demands that we discuss.
The sterile non-debate, hosted in the legacy press, in which the usual eurowhingers drone on and on about their opposition to any remotely realistic proposals, while offering no alternatives of their own, is of no use to anybody.
International co-operation costs money. That’s a fact. But, supranational EU institutions are far from the only, let alone the best or even most appropriate means to facilitate cross-border collaboration.
Technical standards for trade are another area where the conversation has been allowed to become much too narrow. Leaving the EU demands (that word again) that the British electorate think about and discuss what an independent trade policy can deliver. The UK market is not big enough to create an alternative centre of gravity and compete head-on with the so-called “Brussels effect” (formerly the California effect), and nor do we need to. Greater agility and enhanced accountability will enable us to build new alliances, work to embrace and extend the multilateral trading system, and also encourage new voices to have their say.
Accepting an EFTA/EEA interim would near-enough guarantee that the UK is in a position to leave the EU once the scheduled Article 50 timeline expires. The UK could immediately jettison two-thirds of the EU acquis and start to look to the future, working to rebuild our long-neglected national and local governance. An imaginative approach to areas such as agriculture, fisheries, environmental and energy policy has the potential to yield significant gains.
Contrary to establishment myth-making, neither does the EFTA/EEA route involve accepting the continued jurisdiction of the ECJ. The EFTA Court is an existing entity with an independent track record which, crucially, unlike May’s promised “deep and special partnership”, actually exists. Who knows what the Tory Party will assent to given the option to present us with their version of “Brexit”?
Finally, the EEA agreement also includes safeguard measures—a standard feature of almost every international treaty (the supranational EU is very much the exception in that regard)—which Lietchtenstein was able to leverage to negotiate a permanent opt-out from freedom of movement while also retaining participation in the Single Market.
In brief, an EEA type deal offers a stable path out of the EU, would not involve paying into the EU budget, would not involve accepting the continued jurisdiction of the ECJ, and need not necessarily involve full freedom of movement. None of the three pretexts offered by the politicians and the legacy press are true. Yet, the UK government has already said that the rate of immigration may increase after Brexit and that they would be willing to accept the continuing jurisdiction of the EJC for the duration of an (as yet unspecified) “implementation phase”. Perversely, the people who attack the EEA agreement do not attack the government for making proposals which are ostensibly much worse and a lot less “hard” than the “hard Brexiteers” present themselves as being.
For the time being, however, the legacy debate is mired in a tussle over who is more obnoxious, Theresa May or Jean-Claude Junker…