If MPs can find a consensus on Brexit, May must accept it to finally end the chaos

With parliament now embarking on finding out if some kind of consensus can be found on what, if any, kind of Brexit the UK has, and with time of the essence, will this process find a way out of the impasse?

The first thing to be said, is that this is a long overdue exercise. The idea of MPs having ‘indicative votes’ has been kicking around for several months now, but has been blocked by the government. At last enough MPs were brave enough to at least try, by voting on Monday to bundle the government out of the way. The government has failed abysmally to come up with a solution that commands a majority in the House of Commons, so they have no call for complaint really.

It is likely, that if this process can indicate a majority for anything, it will be for a ‘soft’ Brexit of some sort. It is the nature of coming to a consensus that movement is made towards the center by the participants, you might not get all you want, but you get something of what you want. A softer Brexit fits that bill, since there does appear to be a majority in parliament against leaving the European Union (EU), without any deal, and probably not enough for re-run of the referendum.

It is still possible that the Prime Minister’s deal will be passed this week, especially if she offers to resign soon, as many hard line Brexiter’s may fear something much softer, and worse in their view, will be emerge from the indicative voting process. If Theresa May’s deal is not passed though, what kind of softer Brexit has a chance of gaining the support of a majority of MPs?

It is likely to look something like Labour’s plan, which in outline would include a customs union with the EU and a ‘close relationship’ with the single market. The EU has made encouraging noises about Labour’s plan, so it is not some pie in the sky type plan which has been repeatedly rejected by the bloc, like the plans of the hard Brexiters. It looks to be a serious proposal, with a good chance of being accepted on the continent.

The problem is, it wears a red rosette, so many Tory MPs may find it unpalatable, humiliating even, to support it. So it will probably stand more chance if it is labelled as something else. It seems to me to be not that far away from what has been called in the past, ‘Norway plus’ or more recently, ‘Common Market 2.’ This plan has the great advantage of being pretty much off the shelf, and with time so short, should not need to take much negotiation. It also solves the problem of what our future relationship with the EU will be, rather than the ‘blind’ option of the Prime Minister’s deal.

What this means in practice is joining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and or joining the European Economic Area (EEA), or replicating these arrangements in some sort of bespoke agreement. The UK was a founding member of EFTA in 1960, in what could be viewed as an alternative to the EU (then Common Market) at the time, as France barred our admission to that organization.

It is basically a free trade agreement between member states and with the EU. Other member states are Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. ETFA states are not in the Common Agriculture Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. EFTA states are allowed to conclude trade deals with ‘third party’ states.

The EEA which began in 1994 allows EFTA states to participate in the EU single market, whilst financially contributing to the EU. It includes the four freedoms (the free movement of goods, services, persons and capital), as well as competition and state aid rules. It also includes so-called “horizontal policies”, such as consumer protection, company law, environment, gender equality, health and safety and employment law. Switzerland is a member of EFTA, but not the EEA and has separate bi-lateral agreements with EU on trade and some other matters.  

This type of arrangement will not please everyone, it allows freedom of movement, but also allows for an ‘emergency break’ on immigration. It does mean contributing to the EU budget, although likely a lower amount than now, and does means not having a full say on EU policies, but does allow for consultation on changes to policy.

EFTA has its own court too, which settles disputes between members and the EU, but it does take into account ECJ judgements. One thing that can’t be taken for granted is EFTA/EEA states not wanting the UK to join. At the moment EFTA/EEA members have a combined population of only 14 million people, so a country the size of the UK joining, with a 65 million population, could well unbalance the organization. So, maybe a bespoke version of these agreements is a better option.

It seems to me there is deal in there somewhere that could command a majority in the UK parliament. If this turns out to be the case, the British government should take it. It could be put to a referendum, with Remain as the other option. Everyone has had enough of this Brexit pantomime now, and there are much more important issues to address domestically. It is time we moved on, in a sensible way, and not waste the next five to ten years negotiating what our future relationship will be with the EU.      

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