Post-Brexit: We need to embrace plan B

Flag of EFTA

Tim Farron is playing a blinder at the moment. Our clear support of the European Union, while accepting the referendum result, is absolutely right.

But we need a dual track approach here. We need to have an alternative to EU membership lined up. “Plan B”, if you like.

It seems to me that rejoining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) (we left in 1973 after 13 years membership) and staying in the European Economic Area (EEA), is the answer to the current UK post-Brexit conundrum.

This will give us the economic benefits of access to the single market, while giving some control over immigration from the EU.

Though it grieves me to do this, I will use Theresa May’s leadership announcement speech as a reference point. She said:

…as we conduct our negotiations, it must be a priority to allow British companies to trade with the single market in goods and services – but also to regain more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe.

To me, such a declaration is entirely consistent with EFTA/EEA membership.

EFTA/EEA membership already provides “more control of the numbers of people” who enter a member country via Article 112(1) of the Agreement on the European Economic Area under chapter 4 “Safeguard Measures”:

If serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist are arising, a Contracting Party may unilaterally take appropriate measures under the conditions and procedures laid down in Article 113.

The wealth of EEA agreements, protocols and precedent (ref: Liechtenstein) concerning this Article are well beyond my very limited understanding (and I note the current Swiss experience), but there certainly seems to be great scope for arguing for EFTA/EEA membership, alongside Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein (Switzerland are in EFTA but not the EEA).

Article 112(1) looks like the elusive “emergency brake” on immigration to me. There is plenty of wiggle room here. We should absolutely avoid getting tunnel vision about binary choices. I note in passing that even in the EU, Austria and Hungary have erected vast fences to close much of their borders – how more “in control” can one get than having a border fence?

Through the EFTA/EEA solution, we would “regain control over immigration” (not a phrase the premise of which I buy into but it would reasonably satisfy those who want that) while remaining in the single market. We would not be out in the cold. We would still give substantial sums to the EU, thereby maintaining our link with the 27 countries in the EU, and be part of a strengthened EFTA/EEA with other European partners.

This seems to me to be a good progressive solution while accepting the referendum result and acknowledging fears about being “out of control” of immigration from the rest of Europe.

The sooner this plan is agreed upon, and moved forward through negotiation, the better – both from an economic viewpoint but also with respect to healing the current state of national angst.

To me, this formula has all the hallmarks of a great British compromise.

To eschew this option and go the “full fat” World Trade Organisation rules route would be to cast this country out into outer darkness amidst a complete downgrading of our economy. To do such national, epic self-harming on the basis of a binary referendum on a single simple question in flawed circumstances (well described by Professor A.C.Grayling) would be a gross blunder on an historic scale.

That is why it is imperative that we have a General Election to test the cases for the post-Brexit options (see this detailed paper), as well as for the status quo of EU membership now the rubble is settling from the referendum, and provide a mandate for going forward. I acknowledge that the EFTA/EEA route would bring howls of protest from Farage and supporters. So let’s test it at the ballot box.

I agree with Nick that the needed Post-Brexit decisions are so hugely momentous, and so outside the existing mandate for the British government via the 2015 general election, that we must have a General Election to hammer out the post-Brexit plan. It would be monumentally outrageous if we move forward on the basis of a vote of the 0.002% of the population in the Tory party, with 99.998% of us acting as eavesdroppers – the most absurd and bizarre abdication of democracy imaginable.

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