There seems to be a head of steam building among Conservatives for a 2-3 year ‘transition period’ after Britain formally leaves the EU before separation is complete. This could be an ‘off the peg’ arrangement, i.e., membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) alongside Norway. Virtually all existing provisions of EU membership including membership of the single market and customs union, free movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court, and of course Britain’s contribution to the EU budget would remain in place but Britain would no longer be a member. Brexiteers like Liam Fox may sink it because they will balk at the continuation of free movement and/or the jurisdiction of EU courts; some probably suspect that the intention is to turn the ‘transition’ into a permanent arrangement. The goal is to retain membership of the single market and the customs union.
Labour’s shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, spelled out what this would mean and why it should be unacceptable. It entails all the obligations of EU membership with none of the political rights, something that would reduce Britain to the status of a ‘vassal state’. The language was provocative but the logic impeccable. He was immediately attacked by many of his Labour colleagues who are desperate to remain in the single market at any cost. Some of them like Heidi Alexander tried to dress up membership of the EEA by arguing that the EU still has to consult with its members, and pointing to provisions allowing the suspension of free movement where a country faces crisis conditions. This is truly hopeless. There is nothing new here, no substance to the right to consultation, no reason to suppose that the EU 27 would agree to emergency suspension of free movement, and no reason to believe it would satisfy anyone if it did. But Labour is being pulled this way and that with Corbyn announcing that Labour would leave the single market and his closest allies saying it would all depend on the negotiations.
It is easy to see why ‘remainers’ would be attracted to ‘soft Brexit’. It seems like the next best thing to membership, a way of staying close to the EU, retaining more positive relations with Europe and making renewed membership of the EU at some point easier to attain. But they focus on the economics of the single market, not the politics. Apologies to citizens of small nations but the 5th largest economy in the world is not going to surrender the right to shape the rules of the EU so it can sit in the EEA to access the single market. Yet Labour and as well as Tory politicians are talking about this as if it were a real possibility. Labour’s ‘jobs first Brexit’ slogan is small minded, even trivial. Someone in Labour’s ranks should be talking about Britain’s place in the world and the future of the country, setting out a vision of co-operative, collaborative engagement with like-minded movements for European reform against the globalist neoliberalism of the hard Brexiteers.
What is certain is that if put to the political test ‘soft Brexit’ would fall apart in no time at all. And this is the key point, the political test to come. If there is a transitional arrangement with the EU it will be coming to an end around 2022 at about the same time that the next general election is due if the present Parliament lasts 5 years. It shouldn’t. Labour must do everything it can to force a general election at the point when the Tories have to set out their plans for the period after formal exit. But Labour can’t go into that election still trying to sit on the fence, talking about negotiating better ‘access’ to the single market. It says it is waiting to see if public opinion shifts. Fair enough, but it will have to help public opinion shift, and it can’t leave it till the last minute to take sides. At some point Labour will have to pose the question whether membership of the EU with a commitment to reform is better than any of the leave options and fight for that in the subsequent general election. It has to start to prepare the ground for this. One way to do that is to expose the shallow, second-best shelter of the EEA and soft Brexit.