Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Soft Brexit: take what's on the table

Keeping up a blog is a serious pain in the backside. It is a compulsion that borders on mental illness - and some would probably say I crossed that line some time ago. It certainly is a mugs game at the very least, having to work twice as hard to do that which most paid journalists do half as well. If I had any sense at all I would train myself not to give a solitary shit about politics and get on with something more profitable. EUreferendum.com has demonstrated in spades that there is little to be gained financially from being right.

It may well be that I heave a sigh of relief and pack up blogging on the day Mrs May triggers article fifty but I have a feeling it's a case of once a blogger, always a blogger. Until that day though, the fight does on. In this, one of the least satisfying things about blogging is the constant repetition of the same points. If you're bored of reading the same thing over and over, how do you think I feel?

That is why when Borg Brende, the Norwegian foreign minister, trots out his usual mantras, it is an absolute joy to see others picking up the slack. In this instance, Phil Myth gives the subject both barrels.

In Phil's final paragraph he remarks that Leavers should not characterise the EEA as a betrayal, but as proof positive that Project Fear’s central tenant – that the EU and the single market were one and the same – was as false as they always claimed it was. That is the very essence of Brexit - that we do not need political union in order to enjoy a high level of customs cooperation and regulatory harmonisation. That's free trade to me and you.

What makes it especially urgent is that this time the threats are now very real. Yesterday we heard from Airbus Group Chief Executive, Tom Enders, telling us “All our planes’ wings – I’m talking about more than 1,200 wings a year – come out of our English plants. What’s at stake is the continuation of our investments in Britain. A soft Brexit in which Britain keeps in or close to the EU’s single market would retain many trade and business benefits it had as member".

And there you have it from the horses mouth. Airbus could not be more of an EU company if it tried, having invested heavily to impress upon is that political union was necessary for their continued presence in the UK, but after the fact are now telling us something quite different - that political union is not central to investment. What was then "project fear" is now project fact. We do not need political union to prosper but we very seriously do need a high level of customs cooperation and regulatory convergence to keep the many thousands of jobs related to the single market here in the UK.

The remainers for years trotted out their "three million jobs depend on the EU" mantra - and now we have them bang to rights that they were in fact lying. What we said is that those jobs depended on trade - and were keen from day one to make the distinction between the EU and the single market. Now that the referendum is out of the way the remainers need to admit they were lying, but hard Brexiteers also need to acknowledge that the single market is not something we can very easily dispense with.

In a lot of respects, as an engineering company, Airbus is not especially affected by Brexit in that much of its activity is governed not by EU regulations but by international standards but Airbus does depend on a high level of mobility for European workers. You can make the case that British industry needs to start training its own aerospace engineers but as a matter of fact, Airbus does precisely this and still cannot meet its own demand. There are also a number of other customs mechanisms that Brexit could potentially impact for Airbus. Hard Brexiteers are being cavalier with tens of thousands of highly paid jobs that Deeside and Bristol depend on.

In a lot of respects the threat of an ultra hard Brexit is already slim and we would only end up with a WTO option Brexit if both sides made a monumental pigs ear of it. A lot of the histrionics are entirely unnecessary. We are seeking a negotiated exit and the concerns of the banks and large manufacturers like Nissan and Airbus will be heeded. We are looking at a considerable level of regulatory convergence and it is a certainty that we will remain more integrated than most Brexiteers would like. The obvious point for me is that seeking an agreement other than the EEA is futile and dangerous.

One of the most compelling reasons to leave the EU, the customs union especially, is that the EU takes several years to conclude comprehensive trade deals. There is no reason to believe that our Brexit deal would be any different. All the while we would remain in the EU, increasing uncertainty and running the risk of being sucked back in. The EEA represents the best shortcut to leaving while covering all the necessary bases that companies like Airbus need to continue investing in the UK.

Ultimately we voted to end the supremacy of the EU and to end the political union. A soft Brexit would very much achieve this from the very outset. We would still adopt some rules from the EU but we do retain the right to say no (unlike EU membership) - and if "taking back control of our laws" is what motivates you then the right to say no is that exact control.

The way things are now, and the way trade works, there will never be a time when we are not adopting rules and standards from global and regional bodies, and the only way to end that is to be fully isolationist. That is the one thing all leavers said we wouldn't be - so it's time to make good on our own rhetoric and accept that soft Brexit is sufficient for the time being. There is no perfect Brexit settlement and holding out for perfect when adequate will do would be an act of self-sabotage on the part of leavers that we will all live to regret.

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