Brexit as if the 48% mattered

‘Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it’ means virtually nothing. But the mood music is getting clearer now: and it sounds grim for pro-Europeans and moderate Leavers.

Robert Peston cites reliable sources saying the Government wants a ‘Canada-plus’ deal. Canada’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is a so-called deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, which scraps almost all tariffs and tackles a large number of non-tariff barriers. The UK would, however, seek an agreement which extended much further into services as well as goods. (CETA theoretically covers services, but there are hundreds of exceptions – and crucially for Britain, it has no financial services passport.) This is to secure an end to free movement, an end to implementing EU law and an end to compulsory payments to the EU budget.

Even if secured, ‘Canada-plus’ means hard Brexit. Britain would leave the single market – which delivers freer trade than any other arrangement anywhere in the world. As the Treasury and others warned, leaving the single market means much greater economic damage. Canada would want a much deeper relationship than CETA for a market as important to them as the EU is to us. And of course, we still have no idea what other forms of co-operation the Government wants to keep.

Peston’s sources only claim a 75% chance of getting this deal. He rightly describes this as a ‘wholly spurious probability’. Only one relationship with the EU offers membership of the single market in services: the European Economic Area (EEA). Switzerland – the next closest partner – has de facto membership for goods, but not services. CETA is much less complete than the Swiss bilateral agreements. And if you think France will allow our financial services to operate freely in the EU while we leave the single market, I have a bridge to sell you. CETA took five years to negotiate (2009-2014) and still isn’t in force. Depending on a court case, every individual EU member may need to ratify the deal. And how does an Investment Tribunal improve on a proper European Court of Justice?

I’m frightened that, while this happens, Remain voters and politicians are focusing on trying to block Brexit via the Lords, launching court cases over triggering Article 50 and so on. While we all talk about whether we can reverse Brexit on the sidelines, in the here and now we’re taking our eyes off the ball and ignoring the real fight. Whatever you think about a second referendum, we have a Government committed to enacting Brexit in power until (by default) 2020. Its manifesto promised to enact the outcome of the referendum. In this Parliament, MPs won’t try to reverse the choice of 52% of voters on a 72% turnout without a clear electoral mandate to do so.

While we have that argument, Brexit is being defined by a Conservative Prime Minister under pressure from the Tory Right. The Leave vote must be honoured unless opinion changes, the public want to revisit the issue and they then vote for a volte-face. But Britain is a liberal democracy, not a pure majoritarian state, and the 48%’s concerns deserve a hearing. There is no democratic or moral reason to define Brexit in its most hard-line advocates’ terms. Further, the polling suggests most people prioritise the single market over ending free movement. This includes an overwhelming majority of Remainers and a significant share of Leavers.

Joining the EEA, like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, would be far less damaging than a Canada-style deal. Fisheries and agriculture aside, the UK would stay in the single market. We would keep the services passport, so financial services could still operate. Customs barriers would be imposed, but the UK could thus negotiate its own trade deals. There are some limited differences on free movement. The EEA already exists: following an ‘off-the-shelf’ single market model reduces the risk of ending up in limbo after Brexit.

There are hurdles: first, Britain would need to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). It is not guaranteed that the UK would be allowed to join EFTA or the EEA. But a constructive UK Government could give EFTA more heft in striking trade deals. It could also (potentially) increase EFTA EEA members’ leverage vis-à-vis the EU. Britain would need to assure partners it would not destabilise the EEA, and it could fairly point to its good record in transposing directives. But there is a potential deal here. EEA membership, staying in the Emissions Trading Scheme and European Arrest Warrant and working together on foreign and security policy, could add up to a ‘pro-European Brexit’.

The Conservatives only have a majority of 12 in Parliament. Most Tory MPs, at least in public, favoured a Remain vote. Many Leave voters and MPs supported a ‘liberal’ Brexit. We could therefore build a majority in the Commons and the country for a much less damaging approach than the Government’s. A majority in the Lords would probably resist a hard Brexit, if offered an alternative.

The Scottish and Welsh Governments, most Northern Irish parties and the London Mayor backed Remain. Scotland, Northern Ireland and London’s voters did, too. It is currently disputed whether the devolved legislatures should pass legislative consent motions for enacting Brexit. If Westminster insists on a hard Brexit, I cannot see why they should have to vote for them. And if Theresa May doesn’t want to alienate Scots further, she should be willing to meet them halfway.

Labour MPs need to lead the fight in Parliament – working with Tory Remainers, the Lib Dems, the SNP and others. A competent leader who supports the European cause would help enormously. Failing that, MPs and peers must co-operate anyway, in the national and continental interest.

Pro-Europeans must be realistic. For, our battle is now to control the shape of Brexit – to minimise the damage and to stop leaving the EU from meaning leaving Europe altogether. So far, we’re neither fighting hard enough nor focusing our efforts. That has to change. If it doesn’t, leaving the EU will be wholly defined by our opponents.

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