Christopher Howarth is a senior researcher working in the House of Commons. Prior to this he worked for Open Europe, as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
You have got to admire George Osborne’s tenacious pursuit of ultimate failure – the quest to keep the UK in the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market (as argued by his Evening Standard here). Like a half-forgotten band on its last tour, he has been re-joined by his old comrades: the CBI, his old SpAd James Chapman, Chuka Umunna MP on the Labour vocals, David Cameron’s old head of media “Sir” Craig Oliver, and (reportedly) manning the phones is Cameron himself for one last song for Europe. Supporting them are an assortment of Remainer lobbyists and industry groupies ready to sing along.
The remix is that the UK should stay in the EEA and Customs Union for an “indefinite” transitional period – transitioning to…well, back into the EU, obviously. This idea is bonkers and does none of those proposing it any credit.
Firstly, it is bonkers as a policy. The EEA would be a very bad deal for the UK: it would mean the UK accepting a constant stream of laws made by a foreign state with no influence or accountability, a legal colony. Beyond that, the Customs Union would restrict the UK’s ability to make its own trade agreements, handing a veto to the EU in our external trade. It would be as if Benjamin Franklin had turned up to Lansdowne House to negotiate US independence and demanded continued US inclusion in the Navigation Acts and that Britain regulate the US tea trade under a British Court.
Secondly, it is bonkers as a negotiation strategy. The CBI are proposing to ask for an early agreement on a transitional agreement before tying down a final agreement. This cannot be described as a “transitional” agreement, as it is not transitioning to any agreed end state. You cannot have an implementation agreement if you have nothing to implement. Likewise it cannot be a bridging agreement, it is a bridge to nowhere. It is a plank, beloved of pirates, with one end in the EU and the other end over the ECJ. The victim has about as much room to negotiate as a pirate’s hostage.
Attempting to negotiate a transition before negotiating the end state would be a strategic mistake. It would delay discussion of the final agreement and trap the UK in an agreement over which the EU would have a vice-like grip. The chances of then negotiating a deal with the EU or any other state would then be entirely in the EU’s hands. This only stacks up if your plan is to deprive the country of the benefits of Brexit in order to argue to re-join.
Thirdly, it is bonkers in that it flies in the face of political reality, both domestic and European. Even the most casual analysis of the state of UK and EU politics demonstrates that it is a indubitable fact that the UK will leave the EU. Here is a recap of the domestic political facts. We have had:
- A national referendum decision to leave the EU.
- A vote by 498 to 114 in Parliament to trigger Article 50,
- A general election result where 85 per cent of the electorate voted for parties committed to leave,
- A confidence and supply agreement with the DUP delivering a sound majority for Brexit legislation, and
- A further 322 votes to 101 defeat on a Queen’s speech amendment for the Customs Union and Single Market.
If that is not clear, put yourself in Umunna’s shoes and try and devise your own plan to reverse Brexit:
- As Article 50 is legally irreversible, you would need to convince the EU27 that the UK could re-join at the end of the process, on the same terms and agree to forestall any penalties.
- You would need, courtesy of Gina Miller’s Article 50 case, to get a Parliamentary majority to re-join the EU (if indeed you could).
- You would need to hold another referendum to reverse the result of the former referendum, taking many months to organise.
- To do any of the above you would need a new Government.
- In order to get a new Government, Conservative MPs would need to vote for a General Election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act. The Labour Party would then need to win the election.
- The new Labour Government would need to appoint a new leader.
- The new Labour Government would have to pass the above legislation.
That is plainly not going to happen. So why would anyone argue for an EEA bridge to nowhere? An early agreement on a trade agreement makes more sense than spending time on constructing such a bridge – an early agreement on zero tariffs, on customs procedures (for more information see here) and the necessary administrative formalities needed to keep trade flowing.
As a warm-up to the EEA remix, we are now being serenaded by Euratom. Euratom is a little-known EU treaty concerning the nuclear industry. Staying in Euratom is both impossible, unnecessary and undesirable. We have already given notice to leave, membership requires accepting the ECJ’s jurisdiction and a role for the European Commission, continued membership would not be allowed by the EU and, in any event, safety standards, co-operation and UK funding of EU research projects can and will continue as it does for other third states including Japan and Korea. Still, for the irreconcilables there is a chance to stir the pot and hope that if enough grit is poured into the debate the process might slow down. Delay and pray.
So what, then, is this little band of has-beens and irreconcilables hoping to achieve? They now talk of the EEA, but they were admirably clear before the referendum that a vote to leave was a vote to leave the Single Market. Umunna campaigned in front of a poster saying a vote to leave was to leave the Single Market, citing Albania. Cameron derided fax democracy, Osborne came up with a litany of twisted statistics based on leaving the Single Market that he sent to every household in the UK. If that was not enough, the German Finance Minister, at Osborne’s behest, stated that “if the majority in Britain opts for Brexit, that would be a decision against the Single Market. In is in. Out is out. One has to respect the sovereignty of the British people.” They were right: the EEA and Customs Union would be a very bad deal for the UK, why campaign for a bad outcome for the UK? This campaign looks suspiciously as if it is no more than an attempt to destabilise the Government, settle scores with opponents, and flatter both clients and egos. If it is, it does nobody any credit.
Out is out: the UK cannot remain subject to a foreign court over which it has no influence. That would be a betrayal of our history and future. Brexit may have been bad for some politicians’ and lobbyists’ careers, but it is time for the sake of the country that they looked beyond their own interests and moved on.