Now, I am not suggesting that the opinion that we should leave the single market and the customs union is invalid, just that I am getting quite annoyed at the shaming of people who perhaps might have a nuanced view of these issues. To suggest that anything but coming out of the SM and the CU as soon as possible is an attempt to frustrate the will of the British people or is some attempt to stop Brexit, is a shutting down of much-needed debate, just as an amendment that would enshrine a guarantee of continued membership is equally ridiculous whilst the matter is obviously not settled. The current rhetoric around this question from our politicians at the moment does nothing if make them look incapable of holding a complex, non-binary thought, and forces me once again to go over some of the same things I’ve been arguing since I first entered Brexit land.
So here we go again: Brexit is a process, not an event. It is a catalyst, not a cure. Whatever you may want to get out of it, there will need to be steps along the way. After each step, we must take time to ensure that we are prepared for the next one. Ideally, if businesses are going to need to make an adjustment to a new arrangement, there should be as few adjustments as possible, and they should have more than enough time to prepare for them. None of these steps or adjustments will give us what we want in and of themselves, they will only move us closer to a position where getting what we want is more of a possibility.
As things stand, we are over three months into our two-year negotiating period, and basically nothing has been achieved. There are in my mind only two possibilities wherein we can make this work: One, that we extend our membership of the EU until at least 2022, but likely longer, by which time we may have enough sorted out as to have the adjustment be manageable; or two, we negotiate an extended transition period until 2022, but likely longer, wherein we are technically out of the EU but little adjustment has needed to take place. Our primary objective at this point should be to remove ourselves from the current time constraint, and get ourselves into a position where we can take our time, and figure out how to get the most out of this whole process.
There are many prongs to the things we seek to gain from, and protect during the process, and different people want different things; there are going to be trade-offs, and effective management of these trade-offs through a pragmatic approach is vital. Rushing this and closing off possible routes is the best way of guaranteeing that we “win” in one area but “lose” in all others; that we take one step forward but many more steps back. Behind the scenes at least, It seems as if civil servants are starting to come to terms with these trade-offs, and are considering realistic first steps to manage them effectively. But when MPs on both sides shame people doing any serious thinking about how best to go about this, it feels like we’ve made no progress at all in the past twelve months.
What about freedom of movement? Well, SM membership is not at all at odds with controlling immigration, if we can be smart about it. First of all, FoM is Freedom of Movement of Labour, not everybody. Many countries within the EU have ID card systems or something similar that allow them to monitor who is coming in and out and what they are doing much more comprehensively than we do. Non-EU immigrants to the UK already have ID cards, we have a system in place that could be rolled out more widely, all within the rules of the SM. Other countries too, have stricter border controls than we do, all within the rules. In this respect I suggest that perhaps some the dissatisfaction with the way things are currently done here are more reflective of domestic policy rather than the EU's. Then there is also the possibility of something like the emergency brake outlined in article 112 of the EEA agreement which is rumored to be on the table for the transition period. I could also talk about how the most recent annual survey of EU citizens conducted by Project 28 found that 76% of EU citizens believe the organisation handled the migrant crisis poorly, or that 79% believe that the EU “should protect its outer European borders more effectively”. This is a massive disconnect between the people of the EU and its leaders, at least showing that the conversation around FoM is bound to change dramatically over the next few years as Brexit progresses. On this issue, we are not necessarily up against an immovable object. There are options.
On the customs union, Theresa May was actually spot on when she said it isn’t a binary choice. The CU isn’t really what people think it is, and the various aspects attributed to it are not interdependent. There are ways we can make sure that customs cooperation remains as it is today whilst we are released from the Common Commercial Policy that prevents us from doing our own trade deals. In fact, we could enter our own customs union with the EU kind of like Turkey, or strike up individual bilateral deals like Switzerland. There are options.
Ultimately I suspect that we will leave both the single market and the customs union, but like Brexit as a whole, these are only means, not ends. The first step we take – be it EEA, EFTA or something similar, might not be the final destination that people are after, but until we have determined the best way to manage the trade-offs on the way to that destination, we would be stupid to start taking options off the table.