While negotiations have started between Her Majesty’s Government and the European commission on how Britain leaves the EU, it has become clearer and clearer that there are two ways to get out, the soft way and the hard way.
The so called „Soft-Brexit“ had long been a formula for remainers to rescind the vote of last June. That has changed since the only true remainers, the Lib-Dems and the Scottish nationalists fell flat in the general election, even harder than the Conservatives, while Labour has remained at least ambiguous about Brexit.
Soft-Brexit now means leaving the EU but keeping access to the single market on the continent and staying within the European Customs Union. The easiest way to achieve this would be with a membership of Britain in the European Economic Area (EEA) through the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). EFTA is the organization which Great Britain helped to found 1960 as a European body for free trade without politics of the then European Community (EC). Thirteen years later the British turned their backs on their free-trade friends on the continent and joined the EC, who became the EU in 1992. There’s some irony that the Brits might need to return to EFTA 45 years after they left it for the EC, something supposedly to be better, but now unwanted. This would be the easiest way to leave the EU within the two years grace period fixed in the european treaty (Article 50) – which already ends in March 2019.
And there would be some economic advantages too. Since 1992 the EU and EFTA together form the European Economic Area (EEA), the largest economic free-trade area in the world, where almost 400 million people in 31 countries live and work, and where around a third of global GDP is produced. Being part of the EEA would mean the same access to the European single market for British businesses as now, because of the three principles based in the EEA-Agreement of freedom of the movement of capital, goods and services. By entering the EEA through EFTA, Britain would be able to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), a main argument of the Brexiteers, but become accountable to the EFTA-Court, the second pillar of the legal structure of the EEA. The EFTA-Court has an equal footing with the ECJ, but is composed of judges of the EFTA-Members who joined the EEA. That would mean a foreign court for the Brits, but one with a British judge. Koen Lenaerts, former President of the ECJ said last week in an interview that would be the best solution for both Great Britain and the EU. But there is a huge however: being a member of EFTA and the EEA means accepting the fourth principle of the single market, the freedom of movement of persons. This implies free immigration to the UK for all other members of the EEA – and that’s the opposite of what most Brexiteers wanted last year when they voted to leave.
But Great Britain back in the EFTA would strengthen the organization and its idea of free trade in Europe without further centralization and help discussions on which principles are really necessary for trade – and which are not. A paper of Brueghel, a well known think tank based in Brussels, noted last year that while the first three freedoms of movement of goods, services and capital are necessary for free trade, free migration is not. It proposed a new institutional framework for Europe instead. There should be a „continental partnership“ around the EU, argued the paper, where only the necessary rules for free trade would apply. While the paper, signed by high ranking personalities in Germany and France was officially ignored within the EU, it was widely read through administrations in Europe. The absurdity of the EEA right now is the fact that the three necessary freedoms for free trade are still not fully implemented in the single market, while the freedom of movement of persons has been implemented completely and has caused problems not just in Great Britain.
So the EEA could become a short term solution for Brexit while the EEA without free migration would be long-term paradise, not just for Soft-Brexiteers. Soft-Brexit could therefore be one bird in the hand – and two in the bush. (Picture: Davide D’Amico / flickr.com, Creative Commons, unchanged)