John Stevenson, Jeremy Lefroy and Paul Masterton are MPs respectively for Carlisle, Stafford and East Renfrewshire.
The EU Withdrawal Bill has now been passed by Parliament and has received Royal Assent. The referendum result has been honoured and we are leaving the EU.
The Withdrawal Act is primarily one about the mechanics of our departure from the EU rather than the kind of future relationship that will be had. It was not the relevant piece of legislation for Parliament – or the Government – to be setting out the terms of our relationship. This is why amendments on issues such as Single Market or the Customs Union membership were opposed by the Government and defeated.
But now the Withdrawal Act has passed, these are issues which are going to need to be addressed and debated.
The Government’s current proposals for our future relationship with the EU begin with a transition period up to 2021, during which time we will (hopefully) reach a comprehensive agreement for the long term.
During the proposed transition/implementation period, the UK will have to accept all laws and obligations put to it by the EU, whilst not being a part of the institutions which pass these laws. The UK’s obligations will include Single Market membership, free movement, acceptance of European Court of Justice Judgements, and of course the payment of money.
But is this the right approach? In our view, there is an alternative. We would suggest that the Government now take a slightly different approach – one that is still in line with its policy objectives but with a different way of achieving them.
To place the UK in a stronger position, we should immediately apply to re-join EFTA, the European Free Trade Association (an organisation that we ourselves helped to create back in the 1960s before EU Membership) alongside Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland.
The advantages of doing this are clear. We would be part of a structure that the EU already understands, already has a bilateral relationship with, and already accepts. Within EFTA there are already two models of relationship with the EU – the European Economic Area (Lichtenstein, Iceland and Norway) and the Swiss model. There is no reason why there could not be a third model within EFTA, such as a deep and comprehensive partnership – the British/EU model.
As members of EFTA during the transition period, we would then have the opportunity to reach such a long-term arrangement with the EU. Importantly, present EFTA arrangements have a number of advantages and could easily form the basis for our future relationship with the EU.
EFTA membership would fully honour the result of the referendum. We would have control of our fisheries and agriculture, we would not be subject to the ECJ, we would not be in the Customs Union, we would be free to either strike our own trade deals or join with our EFTA partners in reaching trade agreements, we would represent ourselves at the WTO, we would not be subject to direct or indirect taxation rules, and finally, we would not be subscribing to a closer political union.
We would also be involved at the beginning of all EU legislation and, of course, we would help to strengthen the EFTA organisation itself.
The real upside of this proposal is that it removes us from the EU structures whilst at the same time allowing the EU to feel comfortable as they understand these arrangements. It would take much of the heat out of the present debate and it would give us some breathing space to plan for future arrangements between the United Kingdom and our European partners in a much less frenetic, confused, and divisive way.
Joining EFTA is not a party political issue, and it is not a leave or remain issue. It is a pragmatic and sensible way of honouring the referendum, smoothly exiting the European Union and starting to establish a new relationship with our European partners.