How to ensure the UK’s EEA membership

I voted to Remain in last week’s EU Referendum. As attractive as the “liberal leave” agenda of internationalism, deregulation, and freer trade was, there was too great a risk that the driving forces behind a Leave vote would be anti-globalisation and anti-migrant sentiment.

I also feared that Europe’s leaders would harshly punish the UK to disincentivise anyone else from departing. Although Project Fear was hyperbolic, the concerns over our place in the Single Market and the threat to business, finance, and trade were real.

My worries have not been put to rest. Asides from the appalling upsurge in racist incidents, the referendum result has produced ambiguity, uncertainty, and instability. Still, a few things seem clear. We will leave the EU within the next five years. Leave supporters have divergent agendas and expectations. There is some (limited) flexibility for how the UK responds. And an attractive liberal position, namely remaining within the European Economic Area, may actually be viable.

If the Conservatives can select a reasonable leader and assemble a cabinet containing leavers and remainers, they can unite around ensuring the UK remains within the Single Market. Europe will not compromise over free movement of labour. But, given the enormous damage the UK’s withdrawal from the EEA would do to their economies and the electoral repercussions of this, the leaders of the remaining 27 EU Member States will not make the mistake of rejecting this option if the UK accepts free movement.

It is true that this may require a struggle between the elected European leadership and the more vindictive and vengeful EU bureaucracy. However, so long as Britain capitulates on free movement, this should be sufficient to demonstrate that you can only be in the EEA if you abide by all the rules, and could serve to take the wind out of the populists’ sails by making it unambiguous that rejecting migration means embracing economic collapse.

The only question the referendum asked was whether we should leave the EU. The Single Market and immigration were not on the ballot. Nevertheless, is a UK government now in a position to save free movement, given that supporters and resentful opponents alike are trumpeting the leave vote as a definitive victory for nativism and closed borders? Before the referendum, I would have said no, but the political landscape has changed dramatically overnight. 

In particular, the Labour Party has completely imploded. The unprecedented resignation of almost all of the front bench and the no confidence motion in Corbyn’s leadership means that Labour has no short-term future. Either Corbyn goes, leaving a large part of the grassroots feeling betrayed. Or he stays, and Labour faces a bitter split or continuing as an emaciated, divided, and confused husk.

This situation provides an opportunity. If the government negotiates anything resembling a sensible deal, many leavers will attack them for ‘selling out’. Nevertheless, in the absence of an opposition, the fallout from this can be minimised. It would probably mean a few more UKIP MPs at the next General Election, but this may be a necessary price to pay for preserving trade, stability, the position of the city, and, indeed, migration.

The other problem is the difficulty of persuading remainers that good could, or even should, come from leaving. The Scottish Nationalists are poised to exploit this to ensure independence, and some on the left seem to want Brexit to result in economic collapse, isolationism, and legitimised racism, so that they feel vindicated. 

These risks can be navigated. Sturgeon is calculating and canny enough to appreciate that, so long as Single Market access was assured, remaining may be easier than fighting another referendum and struggling through a separate set of harder negotiations in Europe. I also expect that remainers will come to appreciate the necessity of realigning to work with liberal leavers to ensure that post-Brexit Britain can remain open, prosperous, vibrant, and tolerant, and is stopped from descending into nationalism, protectionism, and isolation.