I know my fellow Brexiteers would feel betrayed if we kept freedom of movement - but there is no other way

I'm pro-Brexit, and I naturally assumed that the insular, xenophobic Eurosceptic you always hear about was a strawman created by smug Europhiles. Boy, was I wrong! 

Kristian Niemietz
Wednesday 29 June 2016 16:18
Hurrah for yet another chance to exercise your democratic right
Hurrah for yet another chance to exercise your democratic right

Stephen King’s 1989 novel The Dark Half is about an unpleasant fictional character, George Stark, who, in a mysterious way, turns into a real person of flesh and blood, and causes a lot of mischief.

To me, the EU referendum debate has felt a bit like that. Every single Eurosceptic who I personally know is somewhere between liberal and libertarian. Their Euroscepticism has nothing to do with ‘Little Englanderism’. They are opposed to the EU because they are sceptical of centralised political power in general, and in favour of small self-governing units. They advocate radical decentralisation and devolution within the UK, and their Euroscepticism is a perfectly logical extension of that.

So I naturally assumed that the insular, xenophobic Eurosceptic you always hear about was a strawman created by smug Europhiles. Boy, was I wrong! In the last weeks before the referendum, these ‘strawmen’ had suddenly come to life, and were running free, like George Stark in the novel.

Look, I realise that a referendum campaign is not a think tank seminar, and that you cannot mobilise enough people without a good dose of populism. So by all means, wave the flag, denounce opponents as unpatriotic, turn it into a showdown between ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’. Bang on about sideshows, such as Eurocrats’ salaries, if it helps.

But it becomes a problem if it narrows the range of policy options that can be pursued after the referendum. Turning the referendum into a plebiscite on immigration has done precisely that.

The current state of economic uncertainty could easily have been avoided. Three seconds after the Leave side’s victory, the government should have issued an official announcement, saying: we now intend to join Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and like the former three, we also want to stay part of the European Economic Area (EEA). Essentially, this means staying part of the European single market, without being part of the EU’s political structures. The EFTA/EEA solution is not brilliant, but it has a number of important advantages.

Firstly, EFTA/EEA is a tried-and-tested off-the-shelf solution. It could therefore be implemented relatively quickly, and crucially, investors would know what to expect, because it already exists elsewhere. Suppose you are in an unfamiliar city overrun with tourists. You are hungry, thirsty, and in a hurry, but you don’t know any local restaurants, and expect many of them to be rip-offs. Suddenly, you see the logo of JD Wetherspoon in front of you. That is where you want to go – not because it is the best solution imaginable, but because it is the safe, cheap, quick and easy solution. The ‘Norway option’ could also be called the ‘Wetherspoons option’.

But EFTA/EEA is also defensible in its own right. EFTA was initially the club for countries which were in favour of free trade, but opposed to political integration. This mindset has long been the defining feature of British Euroscepticism (in contrast to, for example, French Euroscepticism). EFTA/EEA would deliver precisely that. The UK was a founding member of EFTA, and in a sense, Brexit, combined with re-joining EFTA, would really be a return to ‘normal’.

During the campaign, Remainers have denounced the EFTA/EEA option, claiming that these countries still have to comply with EU legislation and contribute to the EU’s budget, but no longer have any say over these matters. That is not exactly right. The EU is more than the single market, and EFTA/EEA countries only have to comply with legislation that is specifically relevant to the single market. They are outside of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), two of the EU’s functions that have attracted most of the criticism. They also can, and do, sign their own free trade agreements. On a per capita basis, their net contributions to the EU are lower than the UK’s.

But there is one thing that EFTA/EEA countries cannot opt out of: free movement of people. Except for ‘emergency brakes’, access to the single market and accepting free movement come as a package deal. Hoping for a deal similar to Norway’s is already optimistic. Hoping for an à-la-carte deal is deluded.

So here’s the problem: even if the EU offers a Norway-deal, the UK government might reject it, fearful of those Leave voters who think they have voted for an end to free movement. But that is the wrong interpretation. Suppose we did a follow-up referendum, in which people choose between two types of Brexit: EFTA/EEA, or a departure from the single market. Virtually everybody who voted Remain would now presumably vote EFTA/EEA, and so would many, perhaps most, of those who voted Leave.

We now need a realignment. Sensible Leavers and Remainers should now join forces against the drawbridge-pullers, and form a pro-single-market coalition.

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