Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Today, encouraged by the legal reassurances secured by the Prime Minister and the Brexit Secretary, I voted for Theresa May’s deal. Although I had not felt able to support it in January, it seemed to me that the risk of the UK getting stuck in the backstop had reduced, and the greater risk was that Brexit would be delayed or, worse, frustrated altogether, if MPs rejected the deal for a second time.
I wish more Conservative colleagues had followed the lead of such long-standing Brexiters as David Davis, Graham Brady, Mike Penning, Bob Blackman, Phillip Davies and Robert Syms. But we are where we are. After a second major defeat, it is clear that the deal negotiated by the Prime Minister is never going to get through the Commons. So now we must move on.
The good news is that there is a Brexit compromise that Leavers and Remainers should feel able to support. I call it Common Market 2.0. It involves staying in the economic club of the European Economic Area (EEA) but leaving all of the political paraphernalia of the European Union. I’ve lost count of the number of times that people in Harlow have said to me, “I liked it when we were in the Common Market. I just can’t stand all the political stuff.” (Most of them use a rather punchier word than stuff, if truth be told.)
Common Market 2.0 would secure the jobs of British workers and the prosperity of the small businesses which are the backbone of the British economy. How? By keeping us in the Single Market and a customs arrangement which would maintain frictionless trading links with Europe. But it would take us out of the EU’s common policies on agriculture, fish, justice and foreign affairs. We would escape the clutches of the European Court of Justice, and Parliament’s control of the laws that apply to us would be restored.
On freedom of movement, we would have new powers to restrict European migration in certain circumstances if our government deems it necessary, because the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement gives members the right to unilaterally suspend the freedom of movement if it can show that it is having “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”. If a large new country joined the EU and immigration reached extraordinary levels, like it did in the early 2000s, we would be able to trigger an emergency brake to limit the flow. That’s a power that’s not available to us in the EU.
In addition, we would be able to tell those who, after three months, haven’t found work or got enough money to support themselves to return home.
For Conservatives, Common Market 2.0 has two powerful advantages: because it mostly involves us joining existing structures like the EEA and the European Free Trade Association (Efta), we should be able to implement it well before December 2020. This would mean that the dreaded backstop would never need to be activated, and there would be no risk of different rules applying to Northern Ireland than apply in all other parts of the UK.
The other advantage is this: all we need to do turn the Prime Minister’s deal into Common Market 2.0 is to renegotiate the Political Declaration. We know that the EU won’t make problems, because they have already told us that they would be happy to agree to a future relationship that would keep us in the Single Market. Going for Common Market 2.0 would minimise the delay in delivering Brexit. It is the only Brexit compromise that really can be agreed and ratified in under 3 months.
The people I represent in Harlow, and working people across the country, want MPs to deliver Brexit without damaging businesses or destroying jobs. Common Market 2.0 offers us a Brexit that respects the result of the referendum, secures our economy and avoids the backstop. If we get a move on, we can have it done and dusted by the early summer. Let’s get on with it.