Brexit comment:https://www.ft.com/content/2ada4be4-527 ... 7009366969
Hard arguments for a soft Brexit
There are sensible responses to the claim a softer deal would disrespect the referendum
an hour ago
As far as Brexit is concerned, last week’s general election changed almost everything. Voters flocked to the two main parties, who are committed to leaving the EU, so preventing Brexit is not on cards. But after Labour strongly outperformed expectations, it is broadly recognised that the government has no mandate for its pre-existing plans for a hard Brexit. Big beasts in both the Labour party and the Conservative party are now arguing for a much narrower separation from the EU.
So consider the most obvious soft Brexit option: joining Efta and the European Economic Area, which would keep Britain in the single market on the same basis as Norway, and negotiating with the aim to remain within the EU customs union. (Note that even this is not the softest imaginable Brexit, as the EEA does not cover fish and agriculture. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson explicitly excludes fish from her call for an “open Brexit”, and her view may command a consensus. Agriculture, however, may face difficulties if trade barriers with the European market go up.)
How can advocates of this soft Brexit solution answer the hard Brexiters’ assertion that this would disrespect the referendum? It is not enough to say that the ballot paper only mentioned EU membership, not the EEA or the CU. The meaning of the Leave vote was what the Leave campaign said: “taking back control” of “our laws”, “our borders” and “our money”, and allow for more trade deals to be struck.
There are sensible answers that soft Brexiters can give on each point.
On trade: this was one argument that was always made on pragmatic grounds. Unlike the other considerations, few argued that Britain must strike its own trade deals for the sake of it, but because they would be better and done more quickly than the EU manages. That assertion is rightly losing credibility with the public. First, because it is now sinking in that leaving the EU customs union entails customs controls on the land border in Ireland. Second, because more people are realising that an independent UK trade policy would have to run just to stand still: before it could improve Britain’s trade position, it would have to recover the more than 50 trade agreements the EU has in place with other countries — not to speak of negotiating a trade agreement with the EU itself. Third, but less recognised, the EU is in fact rather committed to striking trade deals. One with Canada has just been wrapped up, one with Japan is near completion, while the one with the US has stalled because of Donald Trump rather than anything to do with the EU. If trading more with the rest of the world is the goal, it is easy to make the case that being part of the EU trade bloc is the best available way for the UK to do so.
On “our laws”: EEA membership (or any other way of staying in the single market) involves abiding by EU regulations. That is what the single market is: a set of common and commonly enforceable rules. But there is a difference. Non-EU members of the EEA make more use of their national legislative process to implement the EU rules — they have no choice but it is at least in formal terms more “sovereign”. The same can be said of the “joint committees” managing, say, Switzerland’s place in the single market or non-EU countries’ participation in European aviation. The Efta court, meanwhile, substitutes for the European Court of Justice in rules enforcement. For all these reasons, the Efta court president is right to say that Efta and EEA membership are more “sovereignty-friendly” than EU membership.
On “our money”: as was known to those who would look, but curiously understated during the referendum campaign, even on the maximalist ways of counting British contributions to the EU budget, the UK always retained full control of more than 98 per cent of its public expenditure. The remainder was indeed under common control with other EU countries and institutions. But principles may matter, and some people may think even 1 per cent is too much not to be controlled by the sovereign UK budget. The EEA would of course require payment for single market participation too — but if Norway is a model, it would not go into the EU budget. It would, rather, be a sovereign determination by the UK to pay a fee of a comparable size. For those who care about the differences, this is presumably more “sovereignty-friendly”.
Finally, on “our borders”: the myth that the EU makes it impossible to manage immigration had been built up during the past 25 years and was never challenged during the referendum. A minor point to make is that the UK has full control over its borders (except in Ireland where it does not want control). It is the ability to control rights to reside and work within the country, not at the border, that matters. The major point to make is that Britain has been unable to exercise the power it retains under EU rules to do just this. So this is no bad time to start publicising the actual rules governing the free movement of people in the EU. In particular, EU citizens are not allowed to stay more than three months unless they either have a job or have independent resources and sickness insurance so as not to be a burden on public services; and may be expelled on grounds of public policy, public security or public health. In short, Labour’s manifesto promise of “managing immigration” is perfectly compatible with the single market’s free movement rules.
What all of this shows is, of course, that increasing formal sovereignty is not to “take back” control but rather to give it up. Whether formal sovereignty or actual control matters more was never debated in the referendum. It is time to do so now.