Co-written with George Freeman
Brexit has locked our politics in a devastating state of paralysis. Public trust is falling, the government is gridlocked and the nation is divided. This can’t go on. The Prime Minister has found herself tied up in knots as all her ill-advised red lines, and EU Referendum promises, prevent her from delivering a deal that can get through Parliament.
One of us voted against her deal twice, one of us voted for it twice. But we both agree on one thing. The Prime Minister should have reached out long ago across party lines in order to find a consensus on EU withdrawal. Instead, the Prime Minister has persisted with a failing strategy, based on running down the clock in the hope that the fear of No Deal will lead eventually to a majority. Her tragic mistake was not to realise that around 20 Conservative Brexit fundamentalists actively want the disruption of a No Deal.
Even if the Prime Minister’s deal were to sneak over the line, there is a real risk that it might not provide a lasting settlement. Can we really imagine the ERG simply waving the EU Withdrawal and Implementation Bill through Parliament? It would surely resemble a haggard out-of-season Christmas tree, with amendment after amendment hanging off it – a little extra on the backstop here, alterations to the transition period there, with the risk of us returning to a No Deal impasse.
And would moderates just sit back as the Prime Minister negotiates the future relationship during the transition period? We’d be rightly demanding a say on what kind of treaty the vague Political Declaration on the future relationship ultimately becomes. The deal needs proper, democratic, Parliamentary consent, or we risk the wrangling continuing for years to come.
Is there a simpler and more reliable Plan B? Yes. It’s called Common Market 2.0. And this week’s ‘Indicative Votes’ process must allow for it to be debated. It is also essential that Theresa May offers MPs a free vote so that those supporting her deal can declare which Plan B they could support. Because there can be no room for confusion: this is a Plan B to make Brexit happen. Not an alternative to it.
Common Market 2.0. isn’t perfect. No Brexit option is. But it would deliver a number of major advantages: inside the Single Market but outside the Customs Union. Taking back control of Farming and Fisheries. Not subject to the ECJ, but the EFTA Court with British Judges. Only paying for what we want from the EU. By joining it we would establish the “two tier” Europe that has always been the most likely outcome of the different visions of Europe pursued by different countries.
Under the so-called Norway Plus model, we’d leave the EU and its political intuitions but maintain close economic ties through full participation in the Single Market via the European Economic Area (EEA). This would constitute a new UK-EU Common Market for the 21st Century. We’d join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in an outer ring of European, non-EU countries who cannot support the EU’s political integration project but believe passionately in economic participation for mutual benefit.
This would protect jobs and livelihoods in Norfolk and Aberavon, and everywhere in between. Crucially, it would only require changes to the Political Declaration, which the EU have said they are open to. Not the Withdrawal Agreement, which the EU have said they’re not.
Common Market 2.0 would actually help Britain “take back control”. Unlike the ECJ, the EFTA court respects national sovereignty. Norway and Iceland have derogated from EU laws hundreds of time because, unlike the EU countries, EFTA states have a veto. We’d also leave the Common Fisheries policy and the Common Agricultural Policy, and we’d only pay for the EU agencies we want to access – amounting to around 50 per cent per capita of what we currently pay.
Yet perhaps the most overlooked benefit of Common Market 2.0 is that it would allow the much-maligned Irish backstop to fall away at the end of the transition period, before ever coming into use. This is because Common Market 2.0 is the only future relationship that can be signed off by December 2020, and includes provisions for single market alignment and customs that would allow for frictionless trade on the Irish border and therefore supersede the backstop.
Common Market 2.0 is preferable to the backstop because the EEA Agreement states clearly that any country can exit the EEA at 12 months’ notice. This is important because around 80 per cent of the Irish border issues are single market alignment issues, whereas 20 per cent are customs related.
Therefore, whatever is agreed between the UK and the EU around Customs, the UK would have the ability to walk away from the agreement if the EU was not fulfilling its promises to help us find technological solutions. This would change the dynamics in future negotiations, restoring the balance between the UK and the EU. At a domestic level, the UK’s negotiation mandate for securing either long-term customs arrangements or the opportunity to embark upon global free trade deals could be could be set out in each party’s manifesto at the 2022 election.
The main challenge for Brexiteers is the question of free movement. While EFTA would require free movement, crucially it is free movement of “workers” not “EU citizens”, which is very different. In fact, we’d gain more control over migration: safeguard measures would allow us to take the sovereign decisions to suspend and reform free movement when we feel we are having “serious societal or economic difficulties.” A negotiation would then take place, but at no stage could the EU force us to re-open our borders or take retaliatory action in areas outside of migration.
Common Market 2.0 is a ready-made, bridge-building Brexit acceptable to Parliamentarians and the wider nation. How do we know this? Before the 2016 referendum, Leave voters such Nigel Farage, Owen Patterson and Daniel Hannan all supported the so-called “Norway model”. Norway is a “rich, happy, and self-governing” country Farage told BBC’s Question Time.
And last summer more than 70 Labour MPs, the majority of whom now back a second referendum, voted for EEA membership. If Common Market 2.0 is acceptable to both No Dealers and People’s Voters, then it can help to break the impasse and reunite our deeply divided nation.