The mis­sions pos­si­ble and im­prob­a­ble on the ta­ble

The Guardian - - NATIONAL BREXIT - Dan Roberts Efta mem­ber­ship

On the eve of the first full week of Brexit talks, there has never been more un­cer­tainty about what Bri­tain wants from the process. As a for­mer cab­i­net sec­re­tary, Gus O’Don­nell, pointed out at the week­end: “Cab­i­net mem­bers haven’t yet fin­ished ne­go­ti­at­ing with each other, never mind the EU.” Of­fi­cially, the gov­ern­ment re­mains wed­ded to a “hard” strat­egy of leav­ing the sin­gle mar­ket, cus­toms union and Euro­pean court of jus­tice, while threat­en­ing to aban­don talks if full trade ac­cess is not guar­an­teed. But even UK of­fi­cials doubt this is pos­si­ble and ev­ery­one is look­ing for a plan B. What are the op­tions for a softer Brexit? Per­haps the most rad­i­cal but ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion would be to seek mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Free Trade As­so­cia-

tion, which we were in be­tween 1960 and 1972. De­signed as a step­ping stone to­ward EU mem­ber­ship, this pros­per­ous club of Nor­way, Ice­land, Switzer­land and Liecht­en­stein could now serve the same role in re­verse. It would give us ac­cess to an in­ter­nal mar­ket of four nearby economies, and a host of ex­ist­ing global trade deals. Join­ing just Efta would re­quire free­dom of move­ment, but only among its four mem­bers.

“It could pro­vide an el­e­gant and rel­a­tively swift so­lu­tion to some of the chal­lenges fac­ing the UK in se­cur­ing postBrexit trade agree­ments with non-EU part­ners,” con­cludes new LSE re­search. “The com­bi­na­tion of con­ti­nu­ity and flex­i­bil­ity could prove very valu­able.”

More con­tentious would be us­ing Efta to ac­cess the Euro­pean Eco­nomic Area (EEA) and the wider sin­gle mar­ket of the EU, as Nor­way does. This op­tion in­volves ac­cept­ing EU rules on free­dom of move­ment, reg­u­la­tion and pay­ments, with lit­tle in­flu­ence. But if th­ese are the price of sin­gle mar­ket ac­cess ei­ther way, Efta at least pro­vides a frame­work.

A cus­toms union

A less oner­ous al­ter­na­tive to the EEA might be to seek more lim­ited ac­cess to Euro­pean goods mar­kets by strik­ing a new cus­toms deal with the EU, as Turkey has done. Not to be con­fused with the EU’s own in­ter­nal cus­toms union, which is re­served for mem­bers, this would guar­an­tee the tar­iff-free fric­tion­less trade sought by both Tories and Labour, but (pos­si­bly) with­out all the bur­dens of full sin­gle mar­ket par­tic­i­pa­tion. A cus­toms union would come with a cost, es­pe­cially in terms of Bri­tain’s free­dom to strike new in­ter­na­tional trade deals. How­ever, Trea­sury re­search sug­gests the ben­e­fits of con­tin­ued ac­cess for man­u­fac­tur­ing sup­ply chains far out­weigh the un­proven al­lure of far-flung new ex­port mar­kets. Pro­po­nents point out the De­part­ment for In­ter­na­tional Trade might be able to seek new deals in the ser­vice sec­tor in­stead.

As­so­ciate sta­tus

Some Tories would like to see Bri­tain seek as­so­ciate mem­ber­ship of key reg­u­la­tory agen­cies, such Eu­ratom and the Euro­pean Medicines Agency, to soften the blow of leav­ing the EU sec­tor-by­sec­tor. At the very least this is likely to in­volve aban­don­ing Theresa May’s op­po­si­tion to the ju­ris­dic­tion of the Euro­pean court of jus­tice. As­so­ciate mem­ber­ship would also only swell the size of Bri­tain’s di­vorce bill. But repli­cat­ing decades of bu­reau­cracy from scratch with­out any in­ter­na­tional co-oper­a­tion may cost more.

No Brexit

Vince Ca­ble and Tony Blair have both re­cently pre­dicted that Brexit may yet be aban­doned en­tirely. If Bri­tain chooses the softer Brexit routes above, it would have to ac­cept most of the po­lit­i­cal com­pro­mises of EU mem­ber­ship any­way. A few years of press­ing our face to the glass like Nor­way may be just what it takes to change Bri­tain’s mind.

Vince Ca­ble (be­low) and Tony Blair have both re­cently pre­dicted that Brexit may be aban­doned en­tirely

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