Calls have reached fever pitch for another referendum or ‘People’s Vote’ with a ‘remain’ option on the ballot in the last few weeks. This has combined with a full-blown offensive by the centre-left metropolitan press who have published a slew of poll data claiming that the majority of people would vote remain in any re-run.
These articles include such spurious claims as ‘Voters want to remain in EU by 12-point margin as Brexit opposition reaches new high, poll finds’ (The Independent 17/01/2019) ‘Three quarters of newly eligible voters would back remain in second poll’ (The Guardian 10/04/2019).
However, this doesn’t automatically mean that people actually want another referendum. After two and a half years of unresolved negotiations and the Tories’ latest deal unlikely to be successfully carried in Parliament this Tuesday is it now time to reach a compromise that recognises how close the referendum result was that seeks to heal the social divisions in the country?
A European Free Trade Association/European Economic Area option does exactly this, and still delivers on many of the conditions that Brexiters voted for, which is why many prominent commentators, including Peter Hitchens, Robert Skidelsky, Larry Elliott, and Grace Blakely have long supported it. Britain played a key role in the creation of both the EFTA and the Single Market was heralded as ‘Margaret Thatcher’s Lasting Legacy’ (Chatham House 09/04/2013).
Combined with the closeness of the result, is it an altogether unrealistic aim that we should re-join the former and leave the latter. More to the point, would it be acceptable to the British public when recent polls by Survation (the only organisation to correctly predict the 2016 Referendum and 2017 General election result) show that public opinion is almost exactly where it was in their final poll on 23rd June, two and a half years ago.
Under the EFTA/EEA option the UK would be free from 79% of EU law, including the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, the Justice and Home Affairs Policy, the Common Defence Policy, the VAT policy and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
We would also be free of the jurisdiction of the ECJ, and instead fall under the jurisdiction of the EFTA court, which is more open, accountable and Anglophile – indeed, Britain played a major role in creating the organisation back in 1957. Its judgements are also non-binding. Meanwhile, we would not in fact be a so-called ‘rule-taker’, but rather a ‘rule maker’ which is one of the main criticisms put forward by remain supporters.
EFTA states play a key role in shaping legislation, and unlike EU states maintain their own domestic legal supremacy so that national laws remain sovereign. In other words, this means that Parliament would have to ratify all new legislation, and if this legislation is not suited to the UK, they can reject it as Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein have done in recent years.
The remaining 21% of EU law will be Single Market rules, most of which are the rules on regulations accepted by non EU countries including these three countries, Switzerland, Turkey and Russia who all have extensive EU trading relations and customs arrangements.. Any free trade deal results in the existence of a shared rulebook that has to be followed (regulatory alignment), and the EU Customs union is no different.
Freedom of movement presents a potential sticking point for many leave voters. Originally prominent figures on the left in Britain such as Bevan, Foot, Benn and Shore (and a few contemporaries) opposed freedom of movement because it was seen as an economic ‘race to the bottom’ – a deregulated labour market that held down wages and which worked in favour of corporations rather than workers.
However, while the contemporary centre-left and trade union movement were largely co-opted into Delors’ idea of a ‘Social Europe’ in the 1990s it has shown few economic benefits for workers in the wake of the 2008 crash and the subsequent austerity program forced onto EU member states. Also, EU regulation does not adequately protect EU citizens who move for work to another country.
On freedom of movement, the UK could also do three things:
- a) apply existing Single Market rules which restrict freedom of movement only to those who can prove, after three months, that they are in work, in study, or have sufficient means to support themselves.
- b) Apply the emergency brake on freedom of movement within the EEA.
- c) Apply the rules currently in place in Switzerland (another EFTA state), which the EU has accepted, which allow for “new roles in industries with a high unemployment rate to be advertised in local job centres for five working days before they can be promoted outside those offices.”
Support for an EFTA/EEA option has been forthcoming in The Common Market 2.0 Briefing, authored by Labour’s Lucy Powell and the Conservative Robert Halfon. It dispels many of the most pervasive myths about the option, including the notion that we would be a “rule-taker” and that “Norway don’t want us to join the EFTA/EEA” which is frequently repeated as one of the common memes of recent months by remain supporters. http://betterbrexit.org.uk/
The EU too has been more sympathetic to this idea, with its chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier saying “the only frictionless option for the future with the UK would be ‘Norway Plus’”. Norway wouldn’t want the UK to enter if it were simply a temporary measure, but it isn’t officially opposed to the UK joining as part of the EFTA/EEA..