I worked for Vote Leave, but I now realise Britain must stay in the single market
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.
‘This government seems strangely keen to be led by a strain of the Tory party intent on a hard Brexit, no matter how damaging.’