Let’s be clear: Theresa May’s Brexit deal is a thumping victory for the EU, whichever way you slice it. On March 29, 2019 our country will effectively become a vassal state for the 21 months of the transition period – complying with all EU rules but without any seat at the table.
The EU will have us over a barrel as we scramble to turn the vague, open-ended Political Declaration into a legally-binding, long-term future relationship, while the cliff edge of December 2020 looms ever-larger.
In essence we are being asked by this government to commit £39 billion of taxpayers’ money in exchange for the most expensive blindfold in history. How can we possibly vote for this leap into the dark, when we are faced with the prospect of handing power from the British parliament not only to the Conservative Party leadership but to the EU?
When our country voted to ‘take back control’, surely this is not what we had in mind?
May’s strategy is of course to bounce MPs into voting for her deal by claiming that rejecting it is tantamount to supporting no-deal. But this has always been an empty threat. I sit on the Brexit Select Committee and hear no end of evidence about the chaos no-deal would bring, meaning parliament will simply not let it happen. Neither will the EU, whose number one priority is to secure an orderly Brexit.
So having called May’s no-deal bluff parliament will have three options: either a) trigger a general election through a motion of no confidence, or b) instruct the government to legislate for a referendum, or c) amend the Political Declaration and instruct the government to secure the EU’s agreement to the new terms.
I would like nothing more than the opportunity to kick this incompetent shower out of power, but would the Conservative and DUP really allow it to pass? Turkeys do not vote for Christmas. And while I voted Remain, parliament is already held in contempt by millions of people so there is a real risk that a second referendum before we leave the EU would drive yet another nail into the coffin of our parliamentary democracy, and would further deepen our country’s divides.
Moreover, both of these options would be subject to the EU 27 voting unanimously to extend Article 50, which is far from a foregone conclusion.
That leaves option c). For more than two years now I have been arguing that an European Economic Area-based Brexit plus a form of customs union – or ‘Norway Plus’ – is the only viable option for the following reasons:
- It would deliver the narrow 52:48 Leave mandate by pulling us out of the EU’s political institutions, while retaining frictionless trade with the 500 million consumers on our doorstep. In this way it is the only form of Brexit that both respects the result of the referendum while also protecting the jobs and livelihoods of the people and communities we were elected to represent.
- We regain control over immigration: articles 112 and 113 of the EEA agreement enable any EEA country to suspend and reform any one of the four freedoms that underpin the single market. Yes, the EU could take retaliatory measures, but the fact is that these articles would actually provide a solid treaty-based basis for negotiation, and moreover this would go with the grain, given that there is a growing appetite across the EU to review and reform the free movement of labour.
- We would regain legal sovereignty as the EEA falls under the jurisdiction of the EFTA Court, which does not have direct effect over national law. This is in stark contrast to the arbitration system that is proposed under the prime minister’s deal, which enables full jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice via the back door. The idea that in EFTA we would be a vassal state of the EU if we were in the EEA is a nonsense.
- It would solve the Irish border issue, because by definition it is a UK-wide solution; a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the DUP.
- The EEA actually exists. It is a well-established and fully ratified set-up that would finally put us on the front foot, and the transition period would be used primarily to tweak the EFTA Convention so that we can participate in a customs union with the EU.
- Britain could lead the way in a new multi-tier Europe. President Macron and others European leaders have made clear their opposition to the EU’s one size-fits-all, top-down approach to integration. By leaving the EU and joining the EEA the UK would become the leading light in a new group of ‘outer ring’ countries that sit outside the political project while retaining the full market participation.
- It commands a parliamentary majority. In June, 76 Labour MPs defied the whip to vote for the Lords’ EEA amendment to the trade bill – Labour’s largest rebellion in history. Conversations across the house show that there is a very significant number of Conservative MPs who will support an EEA-based Brexit once the prime minister’s deal has been voted down. If just one of the major parties were to whip in favour then it would be sure to secure a majority.
Finally, the EEA plus a customs union is the only form of Brexit that gets anywhere near meeting Labour’s six tests, and it also honours our conference resolution commitment to ‘full participation’ in the single market.
Our country is not only polarised, it is paralysed. Communities and families are divided, and parliament has fought itself to a standstill. A Norway Plus-based Brexit would be a strong compromise in the national interest, and it is only by compromising that we will be able to dig ourselves out of this constitutional crisis.