I worked for Vote Leave, but I now re­alise Bri­tain must stay in the sin­gle mar­ket

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Oliver Nor­grove

Will Brexit will be­come the Con­ser­va­tive party’s Iraq war? It is in many ways a poi­soned chal­ice: its ef­fects are in­cred­i­bly com­plex and ca­pa­ble of caus­ing bit­ter di­vides among min­is­ters. It is be­ing ne­go­ti­ated hap­haz­ardly and will de­mor­alise the party for years to come.

I don’t write this as an em­bit­tered “re­moaner”. I used to be a hard Brex­i­teer – I even worked on co­mu­ni­ca­tions close to the heart of Vote Leave. But I’ve now con­verted to a soft Brexit po­si­tion. My ver­sion of our de­par­ture from the Euro­pean Union is largely based around the Flex­cit pam­phlet, com­fort­ably the most use­ful and com­pre­hen­sively re­searched body of work on Brexit yet pro­duced. As a re­sult I fall into what ap­pears to be a niche cat­e­gory of leave cam­paigner: I try to be as prag­matic as pos­si­ble about our de­par­ture.

What in­ter­ests me is how keen this govern­ment is to be led by a strain of the Tory party in­tent on a hard Brexit, no mat­ter how dam­ag­ing. Since the crash in 2008, the Con­ser­va­tives have fan­cied them­selves as the party of eco­nomic strength. They con­tin­u­ally as­sert that Labour can’t be trusted on the econ­omy, which in re­cent years may have been true, but their mantra will col­lapse from un­der their feet if they force Bri­tain out of the sin­gle mar­ket. They will be ex­posed and the coun­try pun­ished for their rash­ness.

Some of the rhetoric sur­round­ing the is­sue is quite stag­ger­ing. Brus­sels is not “try­ing to bully the Bri­tish peo­ple” in ne­go­ti­a­tions. The EU is a rules-based or­gan­i­sa­tion and thus its ne­go­tia­tors need to up­hold the in­tegrity of the sin­gle mar­ket. They are not able to repli­cate its trad­ing terms out­side of full par­tic­i­pa­tion, even for the sake of a smooth tran­si­tion. David Davis thinks Bri­tain can em­u­late Euro­pean Eco­nomic Area (EEA) par­tic­i­pa­tion with­out for­mal mem­ber­ship. This is a fan­tasy and ar­ro­gantly over­looks the le­gal re­al­i­ties of treaty with­drawal.

The re­sult of all this is that I’m likely to vote Labour at the next gen­eral elec­tion. I have soured against a Tory party that is ex­tremely close to wrecking a po­lit­i­cal en­deav­our I will de­fend un­til my dy­ing day.

You will of­ten hear leavers ar­gue that to stay in the sin­gle mar­ket would merely be to re­tain EU mem­ber­ship by stealth, and that sup­port for the EEA is noth­ing but a cyn­i­cal re­main ploy. Well, I’m ar­gu­ing we should stay in the sin­gle mar­ket and I’m as com­mit­ted to Brexit as I’ve ever been.

I don’t want to stay in the EU sur­rep­ti­tiously, which is iron­i­cally what the govern­ment’s pro­posed se­ries of tran­si­tional ar­range­ments

look like. Fur­ther­more, Ice­land, a coun­try in the sin­gle mar­ket, could not be de­scribed as an EU mem­ber in all but name. It re­tains sovereignty, an in­de­pen­dent trade pol­icy and avoids ever closer union.

My change in po­si­tion is largely due to the fact that I am now more acutely aware of the dif­fi­cul­ties posed to our trade by any man­ner of hard Brexit. A no deal Brexit, which we may end up fall­ing into, es­chews ne­go­ti­a­tions with the EU en­tirely and will lead to an ex­plo­sion in cus­toms and doc­u­men­ta­tion checks at ex­ter­nal bor­ders. There will be noth­ing in terms of cus­toms co­op­er­a­tion to plas­ter over our sta­tus as a third coun­try. Pa­per­work at the bor­der will not suf­fice and ships and lor­ries will cram ports and mo­tor­ways, un­able to pro­ceed with goods in trans­porta­tion.

Trade agree­ments don’t fare too much bet­ter. Switzer­land has spent years cob­bling to­gether more than 100 bi­lat­eral deals, sec­tor by sec­tor, and still doesn’t even re­motely en­joy the terms of trade that sin­gle mar­ket par­tic­i­pants do. Be­cause the sin­gle mar­ket is a reg­u­la­tory union, mem­bers ben­e­fit from full, free and fric­tion­less trade whereby goods travel unim­peded by bu­reau­cracy. Non­tar­iff bar­ri­ers have sig­nif­i­cance to ex­porters far be­yond the tar­iffs they would oth­er­wise be forced to pay. Reg­u­la­tory bar­ri­ers to trade can rack up ex­tor­tion­ate di­rect and in­di­rect costs. It is here where a hard Brexit poses most risk.

But in all this there is op­por­tu­nity: to switch tack and opt for pur­suit of Euro­pean Free Trade As­so­ci­a­tion mem­ber­ship, as ad­vo­cated by the Efta president, Carl Bau­den­bacher. If Labour was to do so, they could high­light the ab­surd hypocrisy in the Tories claim­ing to be the party of eco­nomic strength whilst they drive us un­nerv­ingly to­wards a cliff edge.

It’s a move that would at­tract huge sup­port in more met­ro­pol­i­tan and re­main-sup­port­ing pock­ets of the coun­try – pre­cisely the ar­eas Labour will need to ap­peal to if it is to have a chance of a ma­jor­ity at the next elec­tion. Busi­ness will also take note, be­wil­dered at the very real prospects of a de­fault no deal or stunted trade flow that a Tory Brexit might cause. The Nor­way op­tion is Labour’s chance to re­store pub­lic faith in its ca­pac­ity to build a strong econ­omy.

Pho­to­graph: Guy Bell/Rex/ Shut­ter­stock

‘This govern­ment seems strangely keen to be led by a strain of the Tory party in­tent on a hard Brexit, no mat­ter how dam­ag­ing.’

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