John Stevenson is MP for Carlisle.
At present, if the current narrative is to be believed, the Parliamentary Conservative Party is split into two distinct groups; the so-called hard Brexiteers against those secretly plotting to ensure we never leave the European Union at all.
No doubt there is a minority in the Conservative Party who are obsessively pro or anti-EU – and they are certainly some of the loudest voices – but there is a sizeable majority of MPs who are generally supportive of the Government’s efforts in implementing the result of the referendum. They want the best deal for the UK, but they can hear the clock ticking.
I am one of these MPs. I voted to remain in the referendum, but I accept the result and believe that there are huge opportunities to be had from Brexit if we get it right. Similarly, many of my colleagues who were leavers accept that in order to leave the EU there has to be compromise and an orderly route of departure.
But current difficulties arise because although the referendum decided that we should leave the EU, it didn’t decide how. The Government’s road map, as far as I can make out, is basically that we are leaving in March 2019 with a transition period until 2021. The planned transition period will be “as you were”, other than the fact we will not formally be a member of the EU, and in 2021 we will finally depart with a mutually beneficial bespoke EU/UK trade deal in place.
At least that’s the idea.
Of course, a bespoke mutually beneficial UK/EU deal would be ideal, but if we are honest such a deal is not likely to be done by 2021. Just look where we have got in the last 18 months, and the difficulty we face in negotiating with an EU made up if 27 other countries.
The polarised nature of the current debate means that only two options are being presented as possible outcomes. Either we essentially remain in the EU in some kind of limbo until we actually do get a UK/EU deal; or we crash out of the single market, move to WTO rules, and put up hard borders.
But I believe that there is a very real and pragmatic third alternative. I believe that the United Kingdom should leave the EU and re-join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), with the ultimate aim of agreeing a bespoke bilateral UK-EU trade deal as soon as practicably possible.
EFTA already operates with an agreement in parallel to the EU, which includes participation in the EU Single Market. Despite this, each member nation of EFTA has full rights to enter into bilateral trade agreements with other countries, as well as be part of EFTA-wide agreements. EFTA nations also have complete control over their own agricultural and fisheries policy.
The UK was a founder member of EFTA, and our re-joining would strengthen the organisation hugely. EFTA already has free trade agreements with 38 countries, not including the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement. This could be expanded even further, and UK membership would turbo-charge any future trade deals. With the UK as a member, EFTA could be a genuine free trade counterweight to the increasingly politicised European Union.
Most importantly, joining EFTA would be the easiest, least disruptive, and most productive way for this country to genuinely leave the EU until we have a bespoke UK-EU deal. Once a member of EFTA, the UK would be in a real position to decide its own future, working with strong and sensible member nations like Norway and Switzerland.
There would be compromise, of course. Members of EFTA have to accept EEA arrangements – at least until a new agreement is reached. But, crucially, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has no jurisdiction over EFTA nations. Opposition to the jurisdiction of the ECJ was a key part of the leave campaign.
More contentiously, free movement of people would be a condition for membership of the EEA. But, whilst EU citizens are free to live and work in EFTA states (and vice-versa), EU citizens do not necessarily have the same rights to welfare and benefits as EFTA citizens do in their own countries. One just has to look at Norway’s surprisingly firm but reasonable conditions for EU citizens living in the country.
Again, having this control was a crucial aspect in this country’s decision to leave the EU. Many voters resented the fact that being a member of the European Union meant that this country’s Government was obliged to confer all the rights and benefits of being a British citizen to 450 million citizens of the EU. They felt it stripped them of their national identity and inheritance. Being a member of EFTA partly addresses this, whilst simultaneously helping to solve immediate issues like disruption at the Irish border and Gibraltar.
It would also mean that this country would continue to have the ability to attract and keep best and brightest from Europe – those who make vital contributions to our industry and business. I don’t believe that voters who had justifiable concerns about citizenship and borders would see this as an unacceptable compromise.
Re-joining EFTA would be no betrayal of the vote on June 23rd 2016. It would mean leaving the EU – and, importantly, the institutions that the EU controls. It would do this while giving this country the space and time to re-orientate itself and forge a proper and amicable relationship with the European Union. We would then be in a position to negotiate a new bespoke agreement with the EU while providing a degree of immediate certainty.
And for those who voted to remain, joining EFTA is not the leap in the dark that many feared. It is a well-established and respected organisation, made up of sensible and democratic nations who are happy to work closely with the EU, but who have longstanding reservations about the European Union project as it is.
However, in order for joining EFTA to be a viable option politically the Government has to make the case for it – and with real conviction. Time is running out and the Government has to once more find its own voice whilst ignoring some of the loudest voices of others. Most importantly, the Government has to understand that this is no longer a debate about leave vs remain: it’s about Conservative pragmatism working to get the best for the UK.