Richard North, 28/11/2016  
 


The advantages of adopting the Efta/EEA option are that it gives us the much-needed transitional breathing space by keeping us in the Single Market, yet takes us fully out of the EU and the remit of the ECJ.

When the time is right, and we want to upgrade to a different arrangement, leaving the EEA could not be simpler. We simply give one year's notice.

These make attempts to block the option particularly obtuse as, if we reject the idea of staying in the EEA, the only other alternative which keeps us in the Single Market is to stay in the EU, with a phased withdrawal over a number of years. Come the end of the Article 50 negotiating period, we would arrange to stay in the EU, and only several years later (if at all) would we be fully clear of the EU and the embrace of the ECJ.

Unattractive though this is (and one can quite accept any true Brexiteer objecting to it), this seems to be what the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has in mind. According to the Sunday Times yesterday, he is working on a secret plan to keep British businesses in the single market for at least two years after the country leaves the EU.

Carney has held a number of private meetings and dinners in the past two weeks at which he has appealed to business leaders to set aside their differences over Brexit and focus on a common goal. Whether or not Britain remains in the single market over the longer term, business will need time to adapt to the new arrangements, he has argued.

What he is after has acquired the standing of the "continuity option", which kicks in after the Brexit negotiations conclude, in order to prepare for the terms of whatever deal the government can strike with Brussels. In the City though, just to be different, they are calling it the "Brexit buffer" and, dangerous though it is, being thought of as "an elegant solution" to a political stalemate building between business and the government.

As one might expect, the CBI is backing this "continuity option" which is claimed to allow the government to offer a degree of comfort about the future without revealing its broader strategy - if one exists. It would also cushion the financial sector, and broader economy, from post-Brexit turbulence.

The plan, according to the ST went into high gear Monday last, when Carney addressed 50 senior investment bankers at Chatham House and a group of finance directors of the high street banks on Wednesday.

"Carney knows there needs to be a two to three-year extension to allow Britain to adjust from the old rules under Europe to the new order. His key word is continuity", a banker who attended the Chatham House dinner is reported to have said. The governor is now to make an appeal for a smooth transition in Europe, via the G20's Financial Stability Board – of which he just happens to be chair.

And, of absolutely no surprise at all, the ECB is also said to be concerned about the spectre of a "hard Brexit". The ST notes that London is Europe's dominant financial centre and a departure from the single market could choke off the flow of capital for companies across the EU.

Furthermore, the Germans are said to want a handover period but don't want to be seen asking for one. Carney is thus offering what appears to be "a diplomatic solution that works for everyone".

What none of these geniuses seem to have put together though is that this "continuity option" would most certainly need a treaty change for the UK to operate within the Single Market, outside the Efta/EEA framework, on anything like current terms.

That will most likely amount to a succession treaty which presents its own set of problems, not least in requiring ratification of all 28 Member States, including the UK. But what amounts to a fudged exit would, most certainly, trigger uproar which could put parliament on the spot when it comes to ratification.

Then, if it is not ratified, we're into a WTO option, which is the worst of all possible options – but one which would be politically sustainable, while Carney's "continuity option" wouldn't be.

Meanwhile, in a move which is probably not entirely unrelated, Lord Kerr is predicting that the government has a less than 50 percent chance of securing an orderly exit from the European Union within two years.

In his view, the UK will potentially have to accept a phased departure lasting much longer, prompting "a decade of uncertainty".

Predicting a crunch point in the Article 50 talks in the autumn 2018, he argues that the Government is likely to table proposals next spring, whence they would be immediately rejected by the "colleagues", leading to "an extremely nasty bout of xenophobia in the Daily Mail and Sun in the summer, far worse than the recent attacks on the judges as enemies of the people".

According to Kerr, "the fog in the channel is getting thicker all the time", adding even if an agreement was reached by spring 2019 there was a chance "a demob happy European parliament" in its final months before elections in 2019 would refuse to ratify the deal. Hence his prediction that the chances of a deal within two years is now lower than 50 percent.

Kerr challenged those who claimed an interim deal would be easier to negotiate, saying even an interim deal would require an agreement on the long-term destination.

On that point, he cannot be faulted. After all, an interim deal cannot be an interim deal unless you have an end game in mind. And if continued membership of the Single Market within the matrix of the EU is your aiming point, one can see up being trapped there when business objects to dropping out into something that does not offer better terms.

However, Kerr clearly hasn't thought through to the end game. "No one concedes something in an interim agreement that they would not be prepared to concede for a permanent agreement", he says. "In a transition or a bridge, you have to know where you are going, and have a second pillar on the other side of the river, and that is just as hard to negotiate".

This is not actually the case, if your interim is the Efta/EEA option and the end game is to relocate the management of the Single Market to Geneva. But then Kerr – as well as Carney – probably have their own end game, which is called keeping us in the EU by stealth.

The crucial element here is that, at the end of the Article 50 negotiations, we really must leave. We cannot accept a succession treaty which effectively keeps us in the EU, disguised as a transitional agreement, with an option to reverse course and bring us fully back into the EU maw.

Perversely, the best of all defences against such a ploy is the Efta/EEA option and those blocking this are in fact exposing us to the greater danger of getting trapped in the EU. Some people need to do some hard thinking, because the way we are going is looking more than a little dangerous.






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