In yesterday's post, I touched upon the mindset that Vote Leave adopted in approaching the EU referendum's economic battleground. I explained how the question of leaving the single market was answered and what perspective we took when arguing that Britain spent £350m per week on EU membership. It may be of interest to readers who are yet to read it.
When writing about it, I began to think more deeply about the Flexcit model of leaving, with which I have integrated my views on the subject. I also pondered what a referendum would have looked like had the designated Leave campaign advocated, firstly, a plan for exiting the European Union and secondly, more specifically, a Brexit based upon membership of EFTA, which I currently believe gives the UK the best hope of any Brexit at all.
Of course, the prospect of another referendum doesn't bear thinking about. Nobody in the country has the energy for a repeat of 2016, which ransacked voters of their political enthusiasm, causing electoral fatigue to set comfortably in. This is the main reason why I think any sort of follow-up referendum would be a complete non-starter. Trust and credibility in relation to Brexit are arguably irrevocably broken. But I do think that re-framing the debate over EU membership is interesting. Especially so because so many complained after polling day that they had been left ill-informed to make a decision and that both campaigns had resorted mainly to scare tactics.
There is undoubtedly a certain truth to this. Budget threats and insinuations that ISIS and Russia would be strengthened by Brexit were, quite obviously, deceitful beyond measure. So too was the assertion that Turkey, a country armed with only 7.5 million passports, was on the cusp of EU accession. The Turks, after all, first applied to join the EEC in April 1987 and the political hurdles that must be jumped in order to achieve agreement, particularly a reference to domestic democratic deficiencies, are many.
That being said, contemplating the nature of a national debate over EU membership with a Flexcit-type model being advocated by the Leave campaign would, I think, be entirely different. Typically, when I ask people this question, the response tends to be: 'Leave would lose, we simply couldn't have won without immigration, and staying in the single market means no controls on free movement'. I realise this is a perfectly valid point (though not necessarily entirely correct), Leave did need immigration to win, but there is much more that ought to be taken into account.
Remain accumulated around 48% of the polling day vote share largely because those who supported staying in the EU quite understandably feared the economic consequences of leaving the single market. By pushing for membership of both EFTA and the EEA, Leave counters this argument. It is the single market which provides economic security, not the European Union itself. So, right off the bat, the country is playing an entirely different ball game.
Without pandering to immigration and economic forecasts, Brexit would be framed in entirely new and arguably more informative terms. A different battle line that would quickly emerge would be Remain's 'pay, no say', which I have rubbished at this blog previously, taking on Leave's 'globalisation of regulation', which needn't be especially complicated for the electorate. It would have simply required messaging to go along the lines of: 'the rules are primarily made at international level, where thanks to our EU membership, we have no seat'.
Of course, sidelining the importance of immigration would not have come without a backlash. The Farage crew, ever noisy about free movement and determined to bring it to an end, would complain noisily in their own corner of the public arena. I don't know if the EFTA alternative would be enough to discourage them from bothering to turn out and vote Leave. Perhaps it would, perhaps it wouldn't. I think on some level, most Brexiteers would still have jumped at the chance of escaping ever closer union, the safety of which EFTA provides, along with manageable restoration of sovereignty. I think much of the result, in an alternate referendum, would have weighed upon whether Leavers were 'Leave' enough to support EFTA over the EU. This is an interesting question and one I can't claim to have any conclusive answer to.
Another battle fought by Leavers promoting EFTA membership could well have been whether or not legal technicalities made it possible to transition to EFTA without triggering Article 27 of the EEA Agreement, or indeed whether EFTA membership would itself be a permanent solution. The good thing here would have been that since intensive detail utterly bores people, most voters would not have spent a great deal of time considering the mechanics of rejoining EFTA. Many would likely have been more focused on the benefits of membership, of which there are many.
Also, in such a referendum, Stronger In would not have been able to play any of their trump xenophobia cards, which blighted the national conversation and probably (I speculate here) dissuaded quite a few youngsters from voting to Leave, especially those at educational institutions with more overtly political teachers or professors. Or more Remain-leaning, we could say. In this regard, it is possible to argue that a Flexcit referendum would have been less about personalities and the kinds of people voting either way, given how much narrower the divide would be between the political characteristics of EFTA membership and those of EU membership.
The result would have come down largely to whether enough Leave voters stayed at home having been presented with less favourable terms on immigration than they would have hoped (I am not saying that nothing can be done about migration inside the EEA, which is another Farage myth that I used to believe) or whether enough Remain voters would have voted for an end to political union in the absence of what they perceived as being financial calamity. Either way, it definitely makes for intriguing thought. Not just in terms of how we view our membership of the European Union, but as a template for all future referenda in Britain.