Photo: The Times / News Syndication
June 8 shifted the political centre of gravity. There is now no mandate for the Theresa May-Daily Mail catastrophically extreme version of Brexit. Instead, the Labour Party now has the opportunity to forge a coalition of common sense that can seize the moment and chart a new course through these turbulent waters.
For months now we’ve heard the Brexit mantra, that we want “the best possible deal”. But nobody seems to have a clue what that means in practical terms, and there seems to be even less idea about how to get there. This is not surprising, as we are embarking on a journey into completely uncharted territory, but the clock is ticking, and an already compressed timetable has been further squeezed by May’s unnecessary and hubristic election.
The uncertainty, the ticking clock and the shambolic nature of the Conservative Party lead inexorably to two simple conclusions: we need to get real about what can be achieved by 2019, and we need to buy ourselves some breathing space.
Fortunately there is a solution, and it comes in the shape of the transition deal. Below I outline why securing the right transition deal for our country must now be placed at the heart of our approach to Brexit, and how we might go about securing it.
Article 50 clearly outlines the two-step process of exiting the European Union. The first step is withdrawal, which is limited in scope, focusing on the details of the ‘divorce’, and the mechanics of disentangling the UK from EU institutions. In practice this means that the next two years will be limited to settling the UK’s outstanding financial liabilities, agreeing our relationship with the EU Agencies, confirming the reciprocal rights of EU and UK citizens, and tackling the fraught issue of the Irish border.
Once the Article 50 negotiations have been completed comes phase two, the process through which we establish our post-Brexit relationship with the EU27, as a non EU member state, which is negotiated by a different procedure (determined by Article 218), and it is the same process by which the EU-Canada trade deal was negotiated. As that experience showed, it is something that will take a number of years to complete, not least because it will require ratification by 38 parliamentary chambers – from Brussels to Berlin, and from Warsaw to Wallonia.
And it is the second process that addresses the core questions that have so far dominated the British Brexit conversation, namely the free movement of labour, access to the Single Market, and membership of the Customs Union. So it is not actually the much discussed Article 50 process that ultimately determines the success or failure of Brexit.
Brexiteer fantasists continue to insist it will be possible to complete both these negotiations concurrently. This was always a dangerous and misleading pipe dream, and it has been made even less credible by the additional chaos and confusion caused by the outcome of the General Election.
The reality, therefore, is that with formal Brexit negotiations due to start on Monday, we are in an extremely weak position because there is no plan or strategy in place to bridge the yawning gap between our withdrawal from the EU in March 2019, and the definition and ratification of our post-Brexit relationship with the EU at some point in the 2020s.
Crashing out of the EU in 2019 without a bridging deal would lead to the destruction of UK manufacturing, services and agriculture by a lethal cocktail of tariffs and red tape, as we would be forced to fall back on WTO terms.
Striking a pragmatic and sensible transition deal as rapidly as possible has therefore become the pivotal challenge of the Brexit process. And it is clear that such a deal has to be as close as possible to our current relationship with the EU, so that our transition from Article 50 to A218 does as little damage as possible to our economy. In practice this means it must maintain tariff free trade with the Single Market and membership of the Customs Union.
Some argue that it will be possible to strike a bespoke transition deal. I disagree. Having engaged in two years of difficult Article 50 negotiations, and with the prospect of up to a decade of Article 218 negotiations on the horizon, all the signals from Brussels are that a bespoke interim deal is not a viable option. Furthermore, such a bespoke deal would take an already over-stretched Whitehall to breaking point.
It’s therefore clear that the British Government should propose that the UK should move out of the EU and into the European Economic Area (EEA), on 1 April 2019. The EEA is a “ready-made” package that allows both unfettered access to the Single Market, while also providing the scope for curbs on Freedom of Movement. Transitional membership of the EEA would obviate the need for yet another set of negotiations, avoid the car-crash of a WTO Brexit, and would serve to give us the breathing room and manoeuvrability required to negotiate a comprehensive final state trade deal and managed migration deal that works for Britain.
Work must now urgently begin to secure a parliamentary majority and a popular consensus in support of an EEA-based transition deal.
The Parliamentary Labour Party is ideally placed to take the lead on building this Coalition of Common Sense across Westminster. We should be reaching out now to the substantial number of Tory MPs (possibly up to half of their parliamentary party) who are horrified by the mess their Prime Minister has caused, and who are sick and tired of their leaders placing Party before country.
And our Party membership, along with the vast swathes of young people who surged to support the Labour Party on June 8, are also ideally placed to build a Coalition of Common Sense across the country.
There are millions of people across Britain who voted Leave, who voted Remain, who are not ideologies or zealots of either side. These moderate millions have been drowned out by the myths, lies and empty rhetoric that have come to define the Brexit debate. But the general election gave them voice, and they sent a very clear message to Westminster: get on with the job, but please do so without wrecking the economy, and without alienating us from our friends and partners on the continent.
Moving from the EU to the EEA, as a stepping-stone to a final comprehensive UK-EU partnership, is the only viable, logical and pragmatic option on the table. It buys us political time and space, and it provides business with the certainty and stability that is so desperately needed. It also enables us to keep our options open on developing and agreeing much-needed reforms to the free movement of labour.
There now exists a unique opportunity for the Labour Party to show the British people that we have heard the message they sent us on 8 June loud and clear, that we have a workable plan, and that we are the only major political party with the necessary internationalist values, instincts and credentials to deliver a Brexit that is truly in the national interest.