The official campaign period for the Brexit referendum may have lasted only two months – but in truth a Eurosceptic campaign had been raging in the UK for many years before that. Boris Johnson made his name stoking those flames as a youthful journalist – straight bananas, the end of pounds and ounces, a once great nation dictated to by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. All distortions – yet they contributed to a powerful narrative.
But now, with Labour’s announcement of support for a transition period delighting remainers pushing hard for a soft Brexit, the country’s decision to leave the EU could make all those empty fears of the Brexiteers a painful reality.
Labour’s suggested transition would essentially be to maintain our membership of the European Economic Area, while attempting to negotiate our own bespoke deal. That’s music to the ears of many – who see this as the best solution: one that respects the referendum result while preserving the benefits of EU membership.
This would prevent the very real damage done if our post-EU future was steered by Conservative fantasies of a “Singapore-on-Thames”. It avoids the thorny issue of the Irish border, protects our economy and retains freedom of movement. It also comes slathered with the delicious irony that many of the scaremongering fantasies that Europhobes have been spreading for decades could finally become a reality.
While we currently have the opportunity to veto many EU-wide decisions – a disproportionate power that we have wielded gleefully, much to the chagrin of our European partners – as a member of the EEA, like Norway, we would be beholden to the EU’s policymakers in much the way Nigel Farage always told us we were.
What chance an indefinite transition, with the EU happy to keep us in limbo knowing their own economies are sheltered from the possibility of Britain crashing out, but without the power to act as a block? Perhaps after those vile campaign posters you’re worried about millions of Turkish people “flooding” into Britain as they are welcomed into the EU fold? Well there’ll be no way we can veto that country’s membership once we’ve left.
Worried about the democratic deficit of EU institutions (despite our many well-remunerated, democratically elected Ukip MEPs)? Guess how many MEPs Iceland has. Sick of the red tape being inflicted by Brussels on all our ingenious British entrepreneurs? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Of course, all trade deals inevitably involve giving up a degree of national sovereignty – that’s a fact Liam Fox, Daniel Hannon and co never want to mention when they talk of Britain regaining its independence as it begins to trade with the world unencumbered by its nearest neighbours.
In signing a bilateral deal with another country over, say, a free market in beef, we’ve got to agree a common policy on the quality of that product. We cannot then unilaterally decide that we want much higher standards of beef production – we would have to renegotiate the entire pact. Of course, we can simply withdraw from the deal – a sovereign act of the kind that Brexiteers are so keen on – but that is a sovereignty we enjoyed just as much within the EU as without.
The difference, once we’re in the EEA – whether during a transition period or permanently – is that, should the EU agree a new beef pact with the US that allows more antibiotics to be pumped into our meat, Britain would have no seat at the table as the deal was drawn up. It would be left to either like it or lump it, or storm off in a huff – crashing out of all our trade deals and destroying our economy in the process. Which do you think is more likely?
The threat of economic disaster looming over any decision you make sounds like the sovereignty enjoyed by someone with a gun pointed at their head being asked if they feel lucky. Well do ya, punk?
Some have posited Efta membership as an alternative form of soft Brexit – but with this you lose some of the benefits of the EEA, and are still subject to many of the same problems. Freedom of movement is, de facto, replicated; a joint trade policy with the EU still pertains; and Britain would be subject to all the same European “red tape” that currently so enrages the right. The EU is sure to insist any bespoke British deal is much the same.
So the obvious answer is to stay in the EU – enjoy the benefits of the EEA and maintain our seat at the table in order to be involved in the decision-making process. Which brings us back to the problem at hand. The country voted to leave. It’s happening – and it’s happening, presumably, because of the toxic combination of a dishonest campaign and well-founded concerns about the way the country was headed that had nothing to do with the EU.
If the EEA is your preferred option, you are under an obligation to explain how this will solve anything for those who voted for Brexit. Crashing out at least offers the distant prospect, even after a period of pain and adjustment, of a better, future. In the EEA nothing much changes, dissatisfaction grows, and our ability to do anything about it is lessened.
Labour knows there are no good options here, and while staying a part of the EEA seems, at face value, to guard against many of the dangers of a hard Brexit, in one fell swoop all those Brexiteer lies would be made reality. Do we want to become a little island, dictated to by foreign politicians, with no possibility of shaping our own economic future? It might still be unclear what it was leave voters wanted – or expected – when they stepped into the ballot box, but I’m quite sure nobody voted for that.
Preserving our fragile economy is of course important, but if we just maintain the status quo while also turning the EU into an actual – rather than an imagined – bogeyman, we’re storing up big problems for the decades to come. In short: there’s nothing soft about this soft Brexit.
• Toby Moses is assistant opinion editor at the Guardian