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Time to think of the least-worst Brexit option​

EEA membership is increasingly looking like the most achievable, and the best we can get, says Labour MP DANIEL ZEICHNER

I hate the fact that half our country still seems to want to leave the EU. But if that goes on being the case, we need to find the least worst alternative, and that may just be something that doesn’t satisfy anybody, but that most may just about stomach. As such, membership of the European Economic Area and European Free Trade Association has a number of attractions.

It is a fall-back option that the Brexit Select Committee has kept on the table in its recent report, with some interesting votes by Tory members. It has been championed by my colleague Stephen Kinnock, and when former Tory minister Stephen Hammond led a debate on the issue in Westminster a few months ago, it again attracted backbench Conservative support. So it probably has the votes it needs in the House of Commons.

The committee – chaired deftly by Hilary Benn and featuring MPs from across the Brexit spectrum – is calling for the eventual UK-EU deal to fulfil 15 tests, ranging from access to markets, to control over fishing and, crucially, demands that the Irish border “remains open, with no physical infrastructure or any related checks and controls”. It also suggests that EFTA/EEA membership remains a “viable alternative'”if negotiations do not or cannot deliver a deal which satisfies these tests.

Inevitably, hardline Brexiteers on the committee did not support the report, but it was carried because some Tories took a more pragmatic line, and the EFTA/EEA point was specifically tabled by a Conservative, Richard Graham, the MP for Gloucester. So increasingly, this seems to be not only an option that should be kept on the table, but perhaps the only sensible option that moderate opinion can unite around. Needless to say, that doesn’t include Brexit secretary David Davis, who has proclaimed it unacceptable.

Being a member of the EEA keeps us in the single market. This would retain our commitment to freedom of movement, a contributing factor to the referendum outcome. However, this change, from EU to EEA, would allow us to reconfigure the way we do freedom of movement, and make available controls which previous governments have not engaged. Ironically, of course, the EU’s rules already have provision for the UK to exercise immigration controls over those non-UK EU citizens who stay in the country for longer than three months – asking them to prove that they are working, a registered student or have sufficient resources to support themselves.

The EU also permits governments to check that EU citizens have sufficient health insurance, such as an EHIC card which allows the NHS to claim back the cost of healthcare, or private health insurance. The UK is one of the few governments that does not implement these rules – resources directed here could quell the fears that some have over “out-of-control” migration or “health tourism”, while preserving all the positive benefits that EU migration has. As Tony Blair explained recently on the Today programme, this policy was not implemented during the “boom” years of the early Labour government due to economic strength and a need for labour, but the current government has the ability to implement these controls now. It chooses not to, as did Theresa May in her six years as home secretary.

For research-intensive areas like my Cambridge constituency, EEA membership would solve many concerns. It would allow researcher mobility for our universities and research institutions, alongside healthcare workers and carers. It would also allow us to remain in the many European bodies which keep our work at the cutting edge of international progress. Euratom, the European Medicines Agency, Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 and subsequent framework projects are all crucial to the collaborative way that the STEM sector works in particular.

Remaining inside the single market would also mean than we were automatically deemed “data adequate” by the EU, allowing data flows to continue freely, and permitting our world-class British video game companies to continue working across the EU and beyond, as they do now.

Personally, I favour continued cooperation with the European Court of Justice, as I believe in international referees to settle international disputes. If, when Cambridge United lost to Swindon Town a few weeks ago, we had just brought our own referee and said we didn’t recognise the established rules, I think we’d have looked pretty silly – not emboldened by our own sovereignty. Indeed, national sovereignty means nothing if you’re a laughing stock on the international stage.

But for those who are obsessed with undoing our relationship with the ECJ as Theresa May is, the EFTA court is not the ECJ. As the Brexit Select Committee reports: ‘The opinions of the EFTA Court are not binding and it allows scope for national courts to question its interpretation of law as it relates to the EEA Agreement. Docking with the EFTA Court would provide the UK with a ready ‘off-the-shelf’ arbitration mechanism for the ongoing UK-EU relationship.

“Docking was originally a solution proposed for Switzerland and the EU, so should garner support from the EU.’

I would go further, and support Labour’s policy of continued customs union membership, particularly in light of the recent discussions surrounding industry in the UK such as motor manufacturing, a vital part of the British economy, accounting for more than £77.5bn turnover and £18.9bn value added. When I have met with representatives from this industry, I have heard how some parts have to cross borders many times, in the manufacturing of certain vehicles. Increased tariffs on these would be crippling for the industry.

There are strong arguments in favour of going back to the EEA/EFTA model – what could be called the ‘Norway model plus’. Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon, has put it, slickly: ‘The European economic area option ticks many of the Leave boxes… but also delivers the certainty that business is so desperately calling out for, because it is a well-established, well-understood agreement.’

There is no mandate for a Brexit which drags us out of these EU-wide agreements. When voters crossed a box on the referendum ballot paper, whether to Leave or Remain, there was no further box setting out where next in the event of Leave. While I remain in favour of full EU membership, EEA membership may be the way forward which can provide security and stability, while respecting the concerns of those who voted to Leave.

With limited time, and figures from the government’s own analysis which show the potential damage of a hard Brexit, attention will increasingly focus on the real alternatives. This could be the one that gets our country off the hook we have impaled ourselves upon.

Daniel Zeichner is Labour MP for Cambridge

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