One of the legacies of the Leave’s irresponsible, hotch-botched campaign is that, in the public mind, leaving the EU has become inextricably intertwined with leaving the single market and eschewing free movement of goods, services, capital and people. We need to move beyond this binary thinking, which is bordering on the moronic.
Though we should, once options have been analysed by our politicians, have an early general election, I don’t think that is likely this side of hell freezing over. The Tory party is not that keen on self-destruction.
So, we’re left with our system of representative parliamentary democracy as (half) elected in 2015. The government and parliament should debate the options and decide on the course forward. I believe they should choose, with promptness, an option, at least in the short to medium term, based on the EFTA/EEA Norway model. The referendum question covered membership of the European Union. It did not cover membership of the single market and immigration. The government and parliament are entitled, indeed duty-bound, to now move us forward using their chosen best route for the good of the country.
One of the reasons for choosing the EFTA/EEA route, is that it is what has been suggested (albeit amongst other options), in detail, by members of the Brexit community for months, if not years.
In particular, I bring forward Christopher Booker, one of the founders of Private Eye, and a regular columnist of the Sunday Telegraph on the subject of the EU. With writer Richard North he co-authored Flexcit, which proposed the UK rejoining the European Free Trade Association EFTA and staying in (or at least exiting and then re-entering) the European Economic Area as a way of coming out of the EU framework with less disruption to the economy, while allowing further phased evolution later.
According to an uncited statement on Wikipedia, this policy was adopted by the Leave.EU campaign. So the mantra “The Leave campaign didn’t have a plan for Brexit” is false. They did (at least before digressing onto queues of Syrian migrants and scare stories about 80 million Turks suddenly descending on Budleigh Salterton) and it is there in the Flexcit document. That said, the document proposes EFTA/EEA as a stepping stone to a multi-phased wider solution. It could, presumably, equally be used as a stepping stone back into the EU (via either a general election or a second referendum, which may be legally required, coupled with rescinding Article 50 notification before end of the two year post-notification period, which is arguably possible).
Under EFTA/EEA we’d still be part of the single market and we’d have an “emergency brake” on immigration, via the Article 112 “Safeguard measures” of the EEA agreement, which can be invoked “unilaterally” and have been used for 18 years by an EFTA member country, Liechtenstein, to impose immigration quotas.
Christopher Booker wrote on 2nd July in the Telegraph:
On invoking Article 50 we should begin our negotiations mindful that we are already in the EEA where, outside the EU, we intend to remain. This, along with an application to rejoin the European Free Trade Area, gives us an immediate, off-the-shelf solution to the trading problem. Furthermore, under Article 112 of the EEA Agreement, we would also have the unilateral right to claim a partial opt-out from the EU’s freedom of movement rules, allowing us to set up an (albeit generous) quota system to control immigration from other countries in the EU.
Even outside the EEA agreement Article 112 provision, there appears to be scope for flexibility in “controlling” immigration. Jonathan Portes at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests this:
The obvious way to implement a quota, then, would be to restrict the issuance of new National Insurance numbers to EEA nationals, with a monthly or annual ceiling. Once that ceiling was hit, any further EEA nationals seeking to work in the UK would have to apply through the system that currently applies to non-EU nationals.
…given the political will, outside of the EU we could indeed restrict free movement without ending it.
Just last Wednesday, The Leave Alliance was singing the praises of the idea of the UK building on a Norway model:
On immigration the respective situations of Norway and the UK are very different. Norway is party to the Schengen Agreement; it is a voluntary signatory and Schengen is separate from the EEA agreement. Being in the EEA does not require membership of Schengen. Norway also has land borders with the EU (sic – so does the UK, in Ireland) so the situation is not really comparable to the UK. We do have border controls and far more scope to manage immigration though good domestic policy, which has been sorely lacking.
Also, could we not have a more sophisticated employers’ migrants levy system focussed on labour sectors where we do not have shortages? Such a levy could flow money into a re-established Migrants Impact Fund, which could focus resources on areas most impacted by migration in the UK, as advocated by the late Jo Cox.
Another advantage of the EFTA/EEA Norway basis is that it could well reduce the enthusiasm in Scotland for another independence referendum.
As an old boss of mine used to say: “There is more than one way of skinning a cat”. This country does not have to play Russian Roulette with our economy (i.e by leaving the single market) in order to be able to say we have regained some control over immigration from EU countries. We don’t need to sacrifice the UK Union. We need to get creative and ditch the binary thinking.