Lee Rowley is MP for North East Derbyshire, and Co-Chair of FREER.
Parliament is back and, true to form, it’s back to Brexit. Politicians just can’t help themselves as we plough headlong into more discussions on customs, market access, trade, laws and everything else in between.
And with the unwanted and unworkable Chequers proposal creating a bizarre void at the heart of the Brexit debate, other proposals are now being floated regarding our future relationship with the EU just to add to the confusion. The most recent proposal is one to keep us in the European Economic Area (EEA) and, potentially, the European Free Trade (EFTA), for a period beyond Brexit.
Whilst I applaud my colleagues for trying to put Chequers out of its misery and move the debate on, EEA and EFTA are absolutely not the answer, even temporarily. It would quite literally be out of the frying pan and into the fire: both would exacerbate the problems in our relationship with the EU and would bind Britain into arrangements some will find even more unacceptable than our current membership terms.
To understand why such options would be so retrograde, we need to be clear what EFTA and EEA, variants of a “greater EU” in all but name, would be for the UK.
For a start, membership of them would mean Britain continuing to accept the EU rulebook. One of the key reasons why Britain voted to take back control is precisely because we were fed up with being forced to accept laws, regulations, and directives made by others. If we didn’t like some of these laws when we were in the room negotiating them, we are going to like them even less when, as under EFTA/EEA, we have to adopt them once we’ve nominally stepped out.
Secondly, EEA and EFTA would also mean Britain continuing to accept judgements from foreign courts and the significant, if indirect, influence of the European Court of Justice. This is because our Supreme Court would be likely be bound to follow the judgments of the EFTA Court, which in turn follows the judgements of the ECJ. Our Supreme Court would not be supreme.
Moreover, being bound into an EFTA/EEA model would seriously limit our ability to strike new trade deals with the rest of the world. The great potential prize of Brexit is to use our new independence to strike alliances across the world whilst retaining close relationships with Europe.
But innovation, ingenuity and sensible regulatory divergence in the national interest would never be facilitated under an EFTA/EEA model. The most successful countries of the coming decades will those that can move quickly. Without flexibility and agility, we will achieve nothing.
In addition, EFTA/EEA membership would almost certainly mean the retention of free movement for the period we are members; it is compulsory in EFTA and can only be stopped in the EEA under an emergency break-type scenario. With control of our borders being the key question for so many who voted in the referendum, and all the underlying questions about trust that Brexit raises, we should put our focus on designing a new immigration system that suits our country’s needs in the future.
And, for all of these dubious privileges, we would have the added bonus of continuing to write regular large cheques to Brussels. Norway, for example, pays hundreds of millions of pounds a year into the EU. It is a country with one-twelfth the population of the UK, so the demands the EU would place on Britain for EFTA/EEA membership could be substantially higher, running into billions of pounds.
That’s money taken out of taxpayers’ pockets and from our public services. Norwegians don’t call the EEA “pay with no say” for nothing.
Backers of this new plan would say that they advocate EFTA/EEA for a limited period of time only – that it would be a safe harbour during the storm of Brexit and give us more years to negotiate our way out of the EU. Most people beyond the M25 want us to just get on with Brexit, not find new ways to elongate our departure. The idea that we park the difficult challenges for a few years, by remaining in the EU in all but name, is for the birds.
Of course, there is no denying that we are in a difficult and challenging time. For me, debates about EFTA/EEA – or even Chequers for that matter – are certainly helpful in one way: they crystallise the core question in front of us.
Do we believe we are negotiating from a position of strength, or weakness? Do we have the gumption to break out of the EU-imposed framework that it has imposed on the negotiations? Are we going to bow to a power play by the EU, or stay true to our principles by seeking a mutually beneficial economic partnership and, more importantly, reciprocal friendship between the nations who rebuilt the continent together seventy years ago?
That is why we are in such an odd position. The ultimate decisions in front of us shouldn’t be – and indeed aren’t – EFTA, EEA or Chequers. This is ‘rope a dope’ on speed. In the last year the EU has out-negotiated us into a place where our previously preferred option – a comprehensive free trade area with no hard border in Ireland – seems impossible.
It is not. It was an entirely political (and economically irrational) decision by the EU to take it off the table – and for us to accept its removal. Let’s start to rectify that by placing it straight back on.
I want a deal and I want a good one. So let’s stop shadow boxing and start properly negotiating like we can achieve that. Chuck Chequers. Exit EFTA. Extinguish the EEA. Comprehensive, expansive and mutually beneficial free trade. It’s time to toughen up.