Thursday, 14 June 2018

Keep banging the drum

There are good arguments for leaving the single market. There are aspects of it I hate but on balance of argument, and the absence of a credible alternative, I think we need to keep the EEA agreement. It isn't "betraying Brexit".

The EEA is a regional trade agreement, it is not part of the EU treaties and as a member of it we would still have formally left the EU and would no longer be under its control. It will still influence us but there is no scenario where our super power neighbour will not.

It makes sense to be part of it as a regional trade agreement because, well, we are in that region. Yes the EU does have asymmetric power over it but the UK and Efta is a countering force made stronger by the UK joining it. It's better than standing alone against the EU.

Ultimately it provides a stable framework for ongoing relations - and yes sometimes we'll lose the arguments - but it's better to have an amicable system rather than an antagonistic relationship where we are bullied into conformity - as Switzerland has found.

EEA is imperfect but it creates a firewall between us and political union - and it;s better than the Swiss deal where they have to adopt the rules verbatim and ECJ decision are directly applicable (unlike Efta).

There's no scenario where we are not adopting rules if we want enhanced trade. Nobody makes all their own rules. The very basis of modern trade is technical integration and regulatory harmonisation. It creates rapid and secure supply chains and improves product safety.

Regulatory sovereignty comes at considerable cost - not least loss of export potential, and if we diverge with the intent of created an unfair competitive advantage then the EU can and will retaliate. Trade wars are bad - and bureaucratic feuds are even worse. They linger for years.

We have 30 years of economic activity which evolved inside the single market regulatory regime. Re-equipping and retraining for a new regime is more red tape, not less - and there are few advantages to doing so.

EEA Efta would give us the freedom to change most of what we don't want because it's nothing to do with trade. We need a whole new approach to energy, agriculture and habitats and we can do that in Efta. We will still be constrained by global conventions though.

Many EU directives are in response to global conventions - things like the UNECE Air Convention. We would still have to design our own regulatory response and it would end up similar to that of the EU. The sovereignty as imagined by many Brexiters does not exist.

Brexit does repatriate the decision making, and it does shorten the chain of accountability. That's why I voted for it, but we can't get carried away with Tory slash and burn ideas because that's not how the modern world works. Everything we do has international dimensions.

I am satisfied that the EEA agreement contains enough safeguards to make it workable. It just requires a government with a bit of gumption and a spine. We could leave the EEA but there would be no economic utility. Just less trade with Europe and weaker deals with others.

EEA Efta would get us out faster with and would be a stable framework to avoid most of the cliff edges. Brexit without the drama. It's tempting to tell them to stick it but let's get real here. People have mortgages to pay and kids to feed.

This is a revolution in governance - and we should by now have learned enough and evolved enough to be able to have political revolutions without trashing our entire economy. EEA is a chance to do that. If then we still don't like it we can always leave it.

I believe we can use the institutions of the EEA and Efta to advance our interests in ways others cannot and we can apply pressure, together with wider global alliances to force the EU to liberalise and reform from the outside. It has been done before.

This is not just a matter of trade. It is also a matter of geopolitical importance with ramifications lasting for decades. We cannot afford to get it wrong and we cannot afford to gamble everything on the back of some weak Tory assumptions about "fwee twade".

If we get this wrong then we stand to be permanently diminished in our global standing and will probably end up grovelling back to the EU but without the opt outs. EEA Efta is a safeguard against that and something all reasonable people can live with.

We are being sold down the river by mendacious extremists on both sides - and our political machinery is incapable of stopping them. Just look at the gutless party politics we saw last night. If they won't assert themselves then we must. Keep banging the Efta drum!

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