A ‘Norway-plus’ option is the EU deal we want
Conservatives must unite to get a deal that allows us to stay in the single market and control our borders
The people have spoken – and Parliament must listen. Britain must and will leave the EU. But we did not vote on the terms of our departure. The Leavers said we would get a good trade deal as the fifthlargest economy in the world. The Remainers worried Europe would try for a quickie divorce on punishment terms. It is now imperative we are clear-headed about what deal we need as a country and what our plan is to get there.
The first part of the plan must be clarity that we will remain in the single market. We are the world’s greatest trading nation. We have shaped the world and the world has shaped us through our history of being open to free trade and championing it more than any other. It is not just at the heart of our economic success – it is also at the heart of our identity as one of the most open, liberal, outward-looking societies anywhere. So the Government needs to calm markets and many worried investors and businesses, both locally and internationally, by making it clear that it is an explicit national objective to remain in the single market even as we leave the institutions of the EU.
Secondly, we need to do everything possible to restore stability. After the disgusting examples of antiPolish xenophobia at the weekend, this will include reassuring the many wonderful European citizens contributing to our economy and making their living here. All Conservative leadership candidates should jointly pledge this week that full permanent residence will be granted to all European citizens living and working in Britain on the day of the referendum. The 110,000 EU citizens working in our hospitals and care homes deserve no less.
But it is also crucial to understand the message given by the electorate last Thursday, however uncomfortable that may be. It is clear that the country has rejected the free movement of people as it currently operates. The political establishment – of all parties – has been punished for leading people up the garden path on immigration: for decades when people have said: “There is too much immigration,” we have said: “We agree,” and then appeared to do nothing. We have not addressed people’s economic concerns by being honest that growing economies do need immigration (unless we want to stagnate like low-immigration Japan). Nor have we addressed people’s identity concerns, often as much about the pace of immigration and the way it has changed communities so quickly, as about the principle itself.
The solution is to recognise that this is as much of a problem for other EU countries as us. The EU faces collapse unless it reforms free movement rules. You simply cannot justify why the Danes or the Dutch should have to provide unlimited welfare rights to Syrians who were given passports not by their own government but by the Germans. That is why many European countries have serious problems with extreme Right parties – and why reforming the rules around free movement is as much in their interests as ours. So our plan must be to encourage them to reform those rules, thereby opening up a space for a “Norway-plus” option for us – full access to the single market with a sensible compromise on free movement rules. As their biggest non-EU trading partner, it is in the European interest to do this deal as much as it is in our interests to secure it.
So what is the best way to secure such a deal? First, we must not invoke Article 50 straightaway because that puts a time limit of two years on negotiations, after which we could be thrown out with no deal at all. So before setting the clock ticking, we need to negotiate a deal and put it to the British people, either in a referendum or through the Conservative manifesto at a fresh general election. The knowledge that once again we will trust the British people to decide on whether it is a good deal will concentrate minds across the Channel: if they want to conclude this amicably and quickly, which is in their interests as much as ours, they need to put a “Norway-plus” deal on the table.
And what next for the Conservative Party? We have had the courage to offer the most difficult decision in a generation to the British people. But if we are honest, the leadership of all the major parties was unable to make its case about the economic risks of leaving the EU because we have stopped connecting with less affluent and less metropolitan voters.
The Conservative modernisation project succeeded in reassuring many younger and more liberal voters – but will not be complete until we are also connecting with many who are struggling to make ends meet at the more brutal end of modern capitalist economies. We need to unite the party after a bruising battle on the referendum, but we must remain resolved to unite the country as well. This is a time to remember our heritage as the party of one-nation Benjamin Disraeli as much as the free-trading Robert Peel – and tap into their remarkable vision and optimism for the future.