This is a view I have arrived at fairly slowly. My ties to Vote Leave throughout 2016 made conversion pretty much impossible. I expanded upon this at this blog a couple of weeks ago, for those who did not manage to read. But the need for a proper, concise exit plan has only recently become plainly obvious to me. The good thing about re-accession to EFTA is that it is a pre-made package that requires minimal fuss, allows us to avoid economic meltdown and gives us a substantially better deal than we have today. The only real stumbling block is trying to convince hard Brexiteers (and having been one, I know how insistent these people are) that EFTA membership isn't retained EU membership through the backdoor.
For the purpose of addressing the diagram, the European Economic Area (EEA) is the single market; itself a collaboration between the three EFTA states and the European Union countries. Switzerland put membership of the single market to its people in a referendum in December 1992 and accession was rejected, albeit by a margin of just 0.6%. They have, therefore, separate bilateral arrangements with the single market. Even I, a relative newcomer to the Flexcit bandwagon, am already growing tired with media outlets and so-called political experts confusing the EU with the single market. They are not the same thing. The four freedoms (goods, services, people and capital) enshrined into UK law befall unto us by virtue of our membership of the single market, and not by virtue of our membership of the European Union.
This morning I re-watched Jeremy Corbyn's hapless performance on Sunday's Andrew Marr show, wincing in discomfort over his dishonest claims about what leaving the EU meant. Just minutes into his interview, he claimed that the UK could not stay in the single market if it was leaving the European Union. This is a worryingly large deceit. With false promises like that, it is no wonder that thousands of young people lined up behind him in droves at this year's General Election. He can fool them, perhaps, but he can't fool those of us who pay attention. And Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, wasn't much better either. Full of platitudes and soundbites and totally devoid of answers to even simple questions. There is something to be said here for how harshly Brexit is exposing a political class whose obligations have largely been devolved and passed upwards to the European Commission for the last 44 years. They remind me of scurrying ants fleeing from a destroyed nest.
Incompetence of this kind to me demonstrates that most Brexiteers thought that developing an exit plan wasn't a necessity. Last year's referendum campaign, thanks largely to my former colleague Dominic Cummings, did not present an actual plan for leaving the European Union. And there is a good reason for this. There exists no plan for leaving the European single market. Had the Leave campaign recommended rejoining EFTA to the electorate, there is no way we would have won the poll. EFTA membership, thanks to its participation in the single market, means we continue to accept the free movement of people to the United Kingdom, and since immigration was the largest single issue arousing most Leave voters, it would have been politically infeasible to work with such a plan.
But, the referendum has gone, and Whitehall has a mandate to negotiate Britain's exit from the EU. The question, therefore, is how best to approach it. I now advocate rejoining EFTA for a multitude of reasons. The first is that whilst the European Union is a supranational organisation - where sovereignty is sucked upwards and outwards to Brussels - EFTA is an intergovernmental arrangement that is democratically much more desirable. Within EFTA, reclamations of sovereignty are once again possible. EFTA states are not obliged to take part in the Common Fisheries Policy (the very reason Norway opted to stay out of the EU in the first place, and unsurprisingly so), the Common Agricultural Policy, Defence and Foreign Policies, or indeed the Customs Union.
EFTA states can, unlike EU members, negotiate their own bilateral trade agreements, are exempt from the EU's VAT Policy, are not subordinate to the European Court of Justice and, crucially, do not subscribe to the ever-closer-union outlined in 1957's Treaty of Rome and can escape approximately 80% of EU law. The remaining 20% of EU law relates to the single market, but many such rules did not originate at European level and are adopted from global bodies like the World Trade Organisation. I think there are clearly very notable gains to be made outside of the EU and inside the single market. I don't necessarily propose that EFTA membership should be the UK's permanent solution, but the foresight required to develop a plan beyond this one is way above my head. I also think it is important to address some of the worries that other Leave voters have with rejoining EFTA as far as immigration is concerned.
The first issue raised is how we can possibly accept continued freedom of movement, given how important an issue it was during campaign season last year. Article 112 of the 1994 EEA Agreement (which established the single market's conjunction with EFTA) says:
"1. If serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist are arising, a Contracting Party may unilaterally take appropriate measures under the conditions and procedures laid down in Article 113.
2. Such safeguard measures shall be restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation. Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this Agreement.
3. The safeguard measures shall apply with regard to all Contracting Parties."
By right of our joining EFTA, we have controls against excess of these freedoms that we do not have in the EU. I oppose mass immigration for reasons to do with social fabric and integration, but I recognise the need to prioritise single market access and thus the economy during such a sensitive negotiating period. I just think we have to be a little more patient on immigration. Since the referendum result, net migration has fallen, likely due to the political instability presented by our two-year negotiation period and governance by plan-less politicians. I don't suppose this trend will be reversed any time soon.
Leaving the single market is a profound economic risk primarily because the European market treats what it calls third-party countries on much less favourable terms. This isn't a point about trade. It's a point about common sense. If you build something worth having, you will want to set an example and won't accept letting everyone in. That's why, during the referendum, I never argued that the European Union needed Britain more than we needed them. For my allies to have done so was paralysing stupidity. And that's why now, as we move towards the point of no return, I'm arguing for a pragmatic Brexit that sees the UK remain an influential cog in the single market wheel, and in doing so make EFTA a larger and more powerful trading bloc. And the best part about all of this is that the plan is already in place.