Richard North, 08/02/2018  

That leaked impact report has made another appearance. It hasn't been published in the ordinary sense, but it's been shown to MPs in a confidential reading room. Some of them, clearly, are able to read and enough of them were able to take notes, sufficient to give the Guardian a treat.

A no-deal Brexit, the paper is thus able to tell us, would blow an £80 billion hole in the public finances, based on the government having to borrow £120 billion more over the next 15 years, mitigated by £40 billion of gains from leaving the EU.

As always, such figures need to be taken with a pinch of salt. A full-blown kamikaze Brexit would doubtless cost the exchequer considerably more than an average of just over £5 billion year. The full £80 billion could be soaked up in the very first year.

For the rest, the Guardian "has learned" that the north-east would face a 16 percent hit to regional economic growth and the West Midlands would suffer a loss of 13 percent. And overall, a hard Brexit would mean an overall 21 percent rise in retail prices, with a 17 percent uplift in food and drink costs.

The report in fact looks at just three scenarios – the only three that really matter: the Single Market (Efta/EEA); the Free Trade Agreement; and the "no deal". MPs who have seen the documents said they showed every region of the UK would be affected negatively whatever the outcome.

Northern Ireland would be the third worst affected, with a fall of 12 percent in a no deal scenario, and that is without factoring in the impact of a hard border.

London comes out best with a loss of one percent if we stay in the Single Market, two percent in a free trade deal and 3.5 percent in the event of no deal. The South West is judged to do as well under the first two scenarios but drops to five percent if there is no deal.

But, given that the evidence is stacking up that the Single Market presents the most favourable Brexit outcome, it is unsurprising that a number of MPs are pushing for this option The only surprise is that it's taken so long for them to get organised.

Yesterday, they organised a Westminster Hall debate on the European Free Trade Association, while the Brexit select committee took evidence on what it called the "Norway option", a coincidence which did not stop committee member and Efta/EEA advocate, Stephen Kinnock, from taking part in the debate.

The option even got an airing in the "ultras'" holy temple, the Telegraph, in an article written by debate leader Stephen Hammond.

Accusing hard Brexit camp of having begun a project fear of their own against "Efta" (when did they ever stop?), he got enough of the points roughly correct to make a tolerable, if clumsy case for the Efta/EEA option. If only he and his supporters had been this far down the road in June 2016, we might by now be getting somewhere.

However, even now, MP supporters seemed on the whole to be unable to make up their minds whether it is just Efta membership they are after, or the full monty of the Efta/EEA option. Even Hammond fell into the trap, closing his speech with the peroration:
I recognise that EFTA is not a universal panacea, nor does it have all the benefits of membership of the single market and the customs union, but I believe, and I hope this whole House believes, that Britain’s negotiating position and its economic position post-Brexit will be improved by joining Efta.
We then got Paul Masterton, Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire, telling us that:
Efta guarantees to people who voted leave that we are implementing their democratic will to leave the European Union. If anything, it finds that sweet spot in reflecting that the EU referendum result, although decisive, was not overwhelming. We will be in the single market but not members of the EU. We will leave the EU sensibly - even conservatively -if we recognise that trade is only one part of our integrated and co-operative relationship that needs to be unpicked.
However, James Cartlidge, Conservative member for South Suffolk, managed to get it right. "In Efta-EEA", he said, "we stay in the single market. For everyone, there would have to be a control on unsustainable migration. In Efta-EEA, we have the control that should migration surge again, Article 112 and, importantly, Article 113, which guarantees our right to negotiate free movement, would apply and have applied in practice in the real world".

Even though the EEA was mentioned 55 times in the Westminster Hall debate, and the Single Market 30 times, the weakest links wrecked the debate. They allowed the "duty minister", Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Robin Walker to refer almost exclusively to Efta and ignore the substantive points on the EEA.

The government, he said, did not plan to seek membership of this organisation for four key reasons, the first of which was that it did not of itself deliver any market access to the EU. Those calling for us to join Efta, he added, need to be more specific about whether they mean joining the EEA, or attempting to copy the Swiss agreement, or negotiating a different bespoke agreement.

This lack of specificity had given the minister the opportunity he needed to fudge the issue although, as to the EEA, he declared that Mrs May "has been clear" that participation in the EEA agreement would not work for the UK because it would not deliver on the British people's desire to have more direct control over the decisions that affect their daily lives.

It would also, he said, mean accepting the continued free movement of people, which both the Conservative and Labour manifestos pledged to end at the last election – thus totally ignoring the point made by Stephen Hammond that, "under protocol 15 and articles 112 and 113 of the EEA agreement, EFTA states can suspend free movement of people …".

Even then, Hammond could not get it right, referring to the suspension on a "reciprocal basis", not that it really mattered. The minister had ignored the point anyway.

As with the minister, most of the media today is ignoring the Efta/EEA option – and especially the freedom of movement issue. If the option has few friends in parliament, it seems to have even fewer in the media, most of which is focusing on the "secret report" and the economic effects of Brexit.

None seems to be aware – or have made the point - that the effects have (or will be) largely suspended if the transition period proposals go through – leaving us with something inestimably worse than the Efta/EEA option that they are so diligently ignoring.

Just supposing MPs could get their acts together, though, advocates of the option have not thought past it to define a Brexit end state. All thinking seems to stop with the three main scenarios, with nothing devoted to anything outside these very narrow parameters. For all that Flexcit is now getting on for five years old, it is still way ahead of the field.

Most MPs are not past the Janet and John stage of fully understanding the nature of Efta and its relationship with the EEA, so much so that ministers are able to skirt the issue. Parliament, when it "hunts as a pack" can be a powerful institution, but if MPs are all over the place, parading their ignorance, they get nowhere.

Yesterday, they had their chance – limited thought it was. And they blew it, as they almost always do.

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