Why now is the beginning for the campaign for EFTA

Many readers are asking whether there is time to achieve our goals. With the clock ticking to the end of the transition and the government seemingly set on a “my way or the highway” charge over the cliff edge, what could a ragtag bunch of newly united Remainers and Leavers like us seriously hope to achieve by the end of 2020? Is Johnson going to “throw in the bin” his previous stances as he promised that businesses could with customs paperwork?

Time constraints

Is he going to apply to EFTA and put such a “tiger in the tank” that we complete the accession process in two months? Of course not. Yes, maverick Boris magically rustled up a Withdrawal Agreement in double-quick time last year. But, he did it by copying Theresa May’s agreement and replacing the backstop with “something we can change later”. There is no quick fix on the long-term future relationship.

EFTA accession will take time. It’s a process. Patrick Lohlein recently wrote of a solution. The paper that I co-authored for Conservative Group for Europe (CGE) proposes an interim arrangement with a 2024 sunset. It is not limited to any specific post-sunset solution, including EFTA. Indeed, it would mitigate an eventual No Deal scenario, providing a gradual step down. But it does provide time for the UK to negotiate EFTA accession.   

Doing the (quick and dirty) deal

But even if a No Deal or a “Thin Deal” emerges in 2021 instead, is the debate over? With Brexit removed from the government’s lexicon, will the country, despite the vast array of new border controls and trade frictions, believe that it got Brexit “done” and decide not to look back as it sails into the open waters of sovereignty on a perpetual fruitless quest for the apocryphal treasure that it will eternally convince itself is out there waiting for Global Britain?

No. First, the parties will need to build on a “Thin Deal”. Business sectors will lobby to improve their insufficient access to the EU market. The clamour for a deep trading arrangement with our largest export market – taken for granted for 28 years – will take off once reality bites. The pound has taken a tumble and foreign direct investment has fallen, but most of the economic damage of Hard Brexit is still to come: the UK is yet to leave the Single Market.

Better Brexit

Yet already the proportion of the population thinking that Brexit is a mistake has risen to record levels. Moreover, the North of England is driving this shift. Johnson assured voters in these seats that Brexit would be “done”. Could it be that areas relying on manufacturing businesses – the most dependent on frictionless and borderless trade with the EU – are now seeing the approaching cliff edge?

What’s more, the business community has finally broken its silence. The CBI corralled 70 different business organisations this week to say that business needs a Deal. What’s more, it needs a better deal than the Canada-style one that the UK falsely claims to want. The EU refuses to grant “Canada” anyway because it does not have such a deal with any neighbouring country.

With business and the population waking up to the perils ahead, the movement for a sensible trading relationship between the UK and the EU will only grow as the inadequacy of life outside the Single Market for UK businesses and consumers starts to hit home. With new barriers to trade in the news, the upcoming encounter with reality makes now the time that EFTA supporters should be organising.

Join us: and let’s get ready for take-off!

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Martin is a management consultant, former think tank researcher and lobbyist (appearing on national TV) for small business organisations and successful campaigns featured in Public Affairs Magazine. He has provided research and articles on trade issues for the Conservative Group for Europe.

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