Those famous words: ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – but what does it actually mean? In all honesty: who knows? All we know is that the Conservative government plan to invoke Article 50 (the formal mechanism for leaving the EU) by March 2017.
Firstly, it should be mentioned that Theresa May’s government have many many questions to answer – 170 questions have been asked by Labour over Brexit (1), and the government must respond to them in detail, and every single answer must be scrutinized line by line. This decision is not just important for the next few months, but for the next few generations.
The decision the government makes will be crucial for Britain’s future and Britain’s place in the world – getting this wrong would be devastating for our country. But what are the options?
Ultimately, there are three options available:
- Leave the EU, join the Single Market/European Economic Area (EEA)
- Leave the EU, stay outside of the Single Market/EEA
- Ignore the referendum result and stay in the EU
Let’s take these one by one.
Option 1 – Leaving the EU, joining the European Economic Area (EEA)
This option has been called ‘soft Brexit’ by some – Norway and Iceland are two nations which are inside the EEA but outside the EU. The essential concept behind it is this: Britain would leave the European Union – however, in order to retain 100% access to the single market, the UK would join the European Economic Area. This is obviously a positive – remaining in the EEA would bring stability to the markets, and having 100% access to the single market would avoid a business exodus.
However, what does signing up to the EEA mean? It would likely mean paying into the EU budget, abiding by many EU laws, but losing our say in how those laws are made – inside the EU we would still pay and abide by EU law, but we have 74 MEPs, a commissioner on the commission and a seat on the Council of the EU to influence decisions – outside the EU but inside the EEA: 0 MEPs, no commissioner, no seat on the Council of the EU – Neil Kinnock defined this as: ‘pay, obey, no say’.
Essentially, this would be ‘EU-lite’ – free movement of people, full access to the single market, EU contributions and abiding by many EU laws – the difference is, although we may regain ‘control’ in some areas (e.g. fishing, like Norway), we will lose our legislators in the European Parliament.
Option 2 – Leaving the EU, staying outside of the European Economic Area (EEA)
This would mean rejecting membership into the EEA – one immediate problem with this is that it means the future of Britain’s economy would be wholly uncertain, due to the fact that it is not confirmed if we will have access to the single market – trade with the EU makes up 44% of British exports (2). It may take years to create new trade agreements which will need to happen if we leave the EU – years of uncertainty will likely cause lasting damage to the economy.
However, on the flipside – some argue that although it may take years to create these agreements, once they have been finalized then Britain’s place in the world may be strengthened, the argument ‘short term loss, long term gain’ has been said time and time again by some of those advocating Brexit. It also can be said that being outside of the EU/EEA does not mean that we will lose total access to the single market – one trade deal being negotiated between Canada and the EU would mean that 99% of tariffs would be removed (3) – why can’t a similar trade deal be made between the UK and the EU?
It should also be mentioned that Canada does not pay into the EU budget – and outside the EU/EEA, it is very likely that the UK would not either. The issue of sovereignty was also a key issue during the EU referendum – and being outside the EEA would mean that parliament would become more sovereign (that isn’t to say that it becomes completely sovereign, we still share sovereignty with NATO under Article 5 and with supranational regulation from the WTO (4)).
In summary – being outside the EEA/EU would mean we would not pay EU contribution fees and a possible trade agreement could still give us access to the single market – however, this is not guaranteed, and the uncertainty behind this would be massively damaging to the country. Is it worthwhile?
Option 3 – Ignore the referendum result and stay in the EU
Arguably this is the most controversial (and least likely to happen) option. If the government chose not to invoke Article 50, it would mean staying in the EU – that would mean essentially be similar to the outcome of option 1, but with the added bonus that we keep our legislators – meaning we still can influence EU laws.
However, the consequences would be enormous for democracy. Any party advocating this option would likely face massive backlash and ultimately would be wiped out in a general election. What message would this send to the world as well? It would say that democracy only matters if those with power agree with the people – this undermines the principle that ‘politicians are servants to democracy and that democracy is a service to the people’. We should not put barriers in the way of democracy just because we might not like the outcome – the people of Britain have spoke, and that result should be respected.
These are the three main options which are realistically available to the government – what do you think is best?
My personal opinion is this:
I think ignoring the referendum result would be an absolute disaster for democracy, and if my party were to ever take up this position (which luckily they haven’t) I fear it would be political suicide – although 2/3rds of Labour voters voted remain, the leave vote was concentrated in Labour’s heartlands in the North, not to mention the vast majority of marginal seats needed to win in England voted leave as well – to sum up: pledging to ignore Brexit would damage us in key swing seat marginals and in our heartlands.
Brexit really should mean Brexit, so we must leave the EU, however this leaves us with Britain either joining the EEA or staying out of the EEA.
Given these two options – I fear joining the EEA whilst being outside of the EU would be the ‘worst of both worlds’ – it would not satisfy those who voted remain as we would lose our position of power within the EU, and it would not satisfy those who voted leave as it would mean we would likely still pay into the EU budget and abide by EU law – and the contributions and sovereignty were both key reasons why people voted to leave the EU.
Given this – it seems the least worst option is to stay outside of the EEA. However, trade negotiations must be done quickly to minimize the damage to our economy – however, and this is crucially important: I do not trust the Conservatives to get the best deal for workers in Britain.
As with everything political, it brings Labourites back to the fundamental point: we need a Labour government in order to get the best deal for Britain.