Comment: The Case for Joining EFTA – The Guardian, March 2017

by Liam Byrne | 29.03.17


As a member of the International Trade Committee, I helped lead the argument for the UK joining EFTA. Here’s why.
The jaw-jaw is about to start. This week the prime minister will pull the trigger on article 50 and Labour must get off the fence and set out the plan we think best for Britain.

Tony Blair is right to say, as he did recently, that the British people have a right to change their minds. We should push for a second referendum on the final deal. But we need to offer a more substantial alternative than that, and we should begin with a triple shift on Europe policy.

Let’s be clear, the stakes are high. If Theresa May fails to strike a bargain with our neighbours, we’ll be trading in Europe on World Trade Organisation rules. The hard Brexiteers pretend this is a rosy outcome. This is false. WTO rules means killer bills for car firms and farmers. It might cost our economy £60bn: £900 for every woman, man and child in Britain.

But there will be no rewards for Labour if we sit whingeing on the sidelines, frozen with doubts about who to try to please. So it’s time to set a course that reflects what the British people actually want: free trade, strong borders and rights at work. How could we offer that? I think there is a way.

First, we should propose that Britain rejoins the European Free Trade Area. Made up of Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, Efta is the free trade association we helped to found as an alternative to the EU. It’s a free market, not a political union, and belonging to it would mean the freedom to control our borders. We would be outside the European court of justice, but with a trade court that’s tried and tested. Efta frees us from any mandatory cooperation on fisheries, agriculture, home affairs, defence or foreign affairs – but affords us the flexibility to fix our own terms with the EU. Indeed, Efta offers us the most comprehensive single market access outside EEA membership. It keeps us aligned with the EU’s regulatory framework, plus deep customs cooperation.

Crucially, the free trade deals Efta has in place cover nearly £98bn of our exports. That is more than we export to the United States. Indeed, with Efta membership, the UK would need just five more deals – with the EU, the US, Japan, China and Australia, to cover 90% of exports. Most important of all, Efta membership is but a short step away from renewed membership of the single market, following the example of Norway.

Second, we should propose a points system for European immigration. This is the fastest and best way to bring order at the border, letting in the skills we need. We have a points system for outside Europe. It works well. We should roll it out for the EU citizens – but offer crucial privileges for EU workers, set out on in a “green card”. This would let EU citizens visit Britain with ease and apply for a job once here – but only if the job has first been offered to a British citizen. Students and scientists should be outside this system. We need more of them – not less. And quotas should be introduced for low-skill trades such as retail, agriculture and hospitality. This should be part of a package in which we step up and do far more to assist refugees. We must grant EU citizens already living here the full panoply of citizens’ rights.

Third, its time to use the Council of Europe to lock in decent social rights at work. In the years after the second world war, Churchill helped create a magnificent European Magna Carta to make sure there was never a return to the barbarities of the Nazi era. The Council of Europe, along with the European court of human rights, was set up to police the postwar system. Two Conservative manifestos have proposed we leave the council – along with its centrepiece, the European court of human rights.

Pressure from me and others has forced the government to confirm we’re staying in this club of good behaviour. Now we need to use the council to enforce agreements such as the European social charter, which guarantee world-class rights for British workers.

I don’t believe that Labour can block Brexit. Nor should it try, since the debilitation of Brexit will not help Labour. Let’s remember that in the English super-marginals the party held in 2005 and lost later, the vote to leave was nearly 60%. Voters will not applaud or reward a churlish backseat driver. There are no prizes for standing by, looking puzzled.

We should be the steely, steady sherpas – better navigators than the occupants of Downing Street who seem determined to take us over the cliff, in a last-gasp bid to appease the infamous “bastards” of their backbenches. A triple shift on Europe is the route we should now propose.


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