Sunday, 4 September 2016

EEA: the only sane thing on the table

As yet we do not know what the government has in mind for Brexit. There are vague signals but nothing is concrete and nothing in this is trustworthy. Governments can and do change their minds. Mrs May has hinted that there will be no off the shelf solution but that in itself does not rule out the EEA. The UK negotiating an exit will need extensive add-ons in other areas, not least transitional agreements on fishing and agriculture along with all the other peripheral areas of concern. Even if we were to adopt the EEA approach the whole package would very much be a "British option".

The problem though is that leavers express and irrational phobia of the EEA because the lies that Norway has no influence over the rules and there is no control on freedom of movement have become normalised in Brexit discourse. It is now somewhat ironic that remainers now seeking a voice in the Brexit debate are bumping up against exactly the same problems as liberal leavers. Only this is entirely their fault for having told those same lies so many times.

The answers, of course, are all in Flexcit, but to admit it exists would also mean acknowledging it has been there from the beginning. It would also mean reading it which its most ardent critics are the least inclined to do. So we have a bit of a problem.

Everyone now knows what they do not want. Leavers in the main do not want a soft Brexit and are determined to slam the door as fast and as hard as possible without any regard for the consequences and remainers are pushing for something they themselves have rubbished time and again.

In this, while everyone can say what they don't want and why few can say whet they do want. Everybody seems to want "some form of tariff free access" but few on either side show much understanding of the far larger issues. The task is to design a new relationship with the EU - being mindful that we are also negotiating an exit - which is a whole other ball park away from designing a relationship from scratch. It's one thing to hint at what you want - another to specify how we get it.

Worse still it looks like we are painting ourselves into a corner. Nearly everyone is saying that we want full access to the single market, an agreement on services and close relations elsewhere. As the debate moves on, more features will be added to that list whereby we will be asking something pretty close to the EEA without it actually being the EEA.

And at this point reality kicks in. The EU has said time and again that it has no intention of letting us pick and choose and EU member states will not be inclined to take on the task of reinventing the wheel. In that regard, I rather expect we will be offered an ultimatum of the EEA or nothing. We will be able to negotiate annexes to the agreement but there is little sense in pushing for something new from the ground up - not least when it took eight years to negotiate the EEA agreement.

So while hacks like John Rentoul seem determined to lay down the law at this early stage - closing down the options, I am less convinced. There is enough ambiguity and enough scope in Mrs May's words to wriggle out of anything she may have said up to press. She may very well be forced to climb down and later accept that the EEA as a framework for a new relationship is the only game in town.

Superficially it looks like we have lost the argument on the EEA as the normalised lies seem unconquerable, but given the alternatives, it still seems like the most likely fallback position when all other proposals are discredited. Since John Mills, John Redwood and the leavers have little more than weak fantasies to offer, it might well be that an EEA based relationship is the only sane thing on the table. That though, in these times, is still no guarantee.

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