Time for the EEA Option

So it’s a Leave. Now that we’re getting out the challenge will be to get the best deal possible. I think that is, by a longshot, the EEA Option – membership of the Single Market without membership of the European Union. Our full case for the EEA Option is here, but here are some quick points worth mentioning:

  1. Markets are tanking in large part because of the uncertainty about what comes next. A quick and explicit commitment to the EEA Option would calm them and probably undo a lot of the damage that’s been done. It would tell them that (a) there is a plan, (b) that plan is probably politically acceptable to the EU and (c) there is no immediate short-term economic shock to worry about. 
  2. The EEA Option takes much of the risk out of leaving. Brexit means a huge change to the way Britain will be governed, including the prospect of rebooting the country’s political culture altogether, as well as forging better links with the rest of the world in the form of free trade agreements and perhaps even setting up a common travel area with the other Anglosphere countries like Australia and Canada. But a lot of that opportunity could be lost if economic fears dominate the first few years of independence. EEA gives us breathing room to make Brexit a slow, safe process — not a risky, sudden event. We need a strong economy to get the other changes we want.
  3. The referendum was about one question only: whether we stay or leave the EU. It’s tempting to treat Vote Leave like a political party whose pre-referendum promises must now be implemented like a party manifesto after a general election. No: Parliament is still supreme, and as long we Leave the EU, Parliament is what should and will decide what course we take in the years ahead.
  4. Nevertheless, cutting immigration was not voters’ only concern. A Lord Ashcroft poll of 12,369 voters found that only one third (33%) of Leave voters ranked controlling immigration as their top reason for leaving – that is, 17% of all voters – compared to 49% who said it was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. 
  5. For many Leave voters it was about having control over immigration, not necessarily reducing numbers. Article 112 of the EEA Agreement allows EEA states to take unilateral action to restrict freedom of movement in the event of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”. This may be enough control to satisfy a majority of the British public, if it was the trade-off for economic stability in other respects. Those people who believe that voters will feel betrayed if immigration does not sharply fall should consider how betrayed those same voters will feel if we have a recession after being promised repeatedly that this was not a risk.
  6. Voters may be surprisingly open to the EEA Option. We commissioned a YouGov poll recently that asked voters whether they would support the EEA Option even if it meant adopting some EU law and keeping freedom of movement, as Norway does. By a two-to-one margin (54% to 25%) they said that they would either strongly support or tend to support this choice. And yes, a single poll needs to be taken with a giant pinch of salt, but it is still indicative that the public wants economic security above all else.

For the EEA Option to be viable we’ll need support from across the political spectrum, and from both Remainers and Leavers alike. In particular, liberals of every stripe should embrace this route’s pragmatism and commitment to maintaining deep trading links between Britain and the EU. 

The EEA Option can unite Britain. To avoid the same kind of polarisation that followed the Scottish referendum, the next government will have to try and find a deal that satisfies more than just the 52% of leave voters. We need a deal that will calm the people who are anxious about the future today and feel as if half the country is against what they believe in. That should be the one that keeps Britain open, trading, prosperous, and free.