It was a very cold evening on Friday 9 December, when two dozen people gathered in the impressive Victorian Council Chamber of Bradford’s City Hall to engage in a discussion. The topic was: The EU Single Market: could we, should we, rejoin?
The meeting was set up by Bradford for Europe, whose members sensed that the tide that had once flowed in favour of Brexit had now turned. The most recent poll that had asked respondents ‘Were we right or wrong to leave the EU’ found that only 34% answered ‘right’ with 51% asserting ‘wrong’.
Two things are very clear. First that the government is on the back foot with respect to Brexit, its supposed flagship policy. Secondly, until recently, the Labour opposition in parliament was happy to connive with the Conservatives in a conspiracy of silence. ‘Brexit’ was to be ‘the elephant in the room’. Bradford for Europe was keen to break that conspiracy, and this was just at a time when there appeared the first glimmers of interest in the British media (and business circles) in mitigating some of the Brexit damage by rejoining the single market.
A Norway-style deal: still a suitable compromise?
With help from a friendly Labour councillor, Bradford for Europe got free use of the council chamber to hold our discussion. We were very fortunate that two friends of ours agreed to lead on the discussion. Jean-Marc Trouille not only holds a chair in European business at Bradford University but has a son (with dual French/English nationality) who works in the EU Commission in Brussels. A rich source of information indeed!
The initial keynote speaker was Richard Wilson who features at a national level, being a vice-chair of the European Movement as well as chair of our neighbour Leeds for Europe.
Key points to emerge from the presentations were:
- The UK can join the single market without overturning Brexit. The single market was an initiative in the EU that was driven by the British government in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.
- There are four countries in the single market that are not in the EU. The UK could become like Norway (which, like Britain, also had a referendum narrowly rejecting the EU). Norway is not subject to the common agricultural or common fisheries policies but does have freedom for exporters to trade and for citizens to travel. British exporters and British citizens need these freedoms.
- Before 2021 (the year the UK left the EU), British exporters sold about 70,000 different products to other countries. Now our exporters sell only 42,000 products. Small and medium-size companies have given up, because of the complicated bureaucracy. Being in the single market would do away with the new bureaucracy.
From the audience, a representative of a local business (with factories in Bradford and Leeds) held up an example of the crazy forms that his company now has to fill in for every single product they sell. He pointed out this was not needed when the UK was in the EU, and won’t be needed again if Britain is in the single market.
Another member present pointed out that Britain’s economy is about £100bn smaller as a result of these ‘trade frictions’ – that the government takes about 35% or 40% of economic activity in taxes – and that, funnily enough, that matches the £35bn extra in taxes that the chancellor Jeremy Hunt has just had to raise in November. In short, if we had been in the single market then the austerity of the November financial statement might not have been necessary.
Whilst efforts had been made to attract Brexit supporters into the meeting (for balance), none chose to respond positively to the invitations. Hence there appeared to be unanimity in the chamber that we should seek to rejoin the single market. The more vexed question was, ‘could we?’
Can the Conservative and UKIP poison be drained?
A number of unknowns presented. The main point of access to rejoining would be via renewed UK membership of the European Free Trade Area (of which Norway is a member – see above). But would Norway and the other three EFTA members wish the UK to join, since we would swamp them size-wise?
Equally, how would the remaining 27 members of the EU regard an attempt by the recalcitrant UK to ‘reverse’ Brexit? Even during our time as members, the UK consistently came across as ‘the awkward squad’. Although Thatcher had been the prime mover in setting up the single market she is remembered also for bludgeoning Brussels with her handbag. Brexit had been an unnecessary and unwelcome nightmare for the remaining 27.
A positive straw in the wind emerged when Professor Trouille reported that within the EU Commission efforts had been made to retain English-speaking staff with dual nationalities in post. Could we take this as a sign that the door was being left ajar?
To what extent, over the years, had the Conservatives and UKIP poisoned the well of UK-EU relations? Can that poison be drained? A heavy defeat for the Tories in the next general election would go some way to undoing the damage. A 180-degree policy turn on their part – admission of having been wrong, contrition and atonement – would be highly desirable but equally highly unlikely.
Starmer: boxing a little too cleverly?
What of Labour? Staunch ‘Remainers’ tear their hair out. At a time when perhaps three-quarters of Labour voters would look to rejoin the single market, publicly Keir Starmer has, on more than one occasion, set his face against such a course. At first sight, it seems Starmer is obsessed with not upsetting former Labour voters in the Red Wall who voted for Brexit in 2016 and for Boris Johnson in 2019. On a superficial analysis, Starmer looks to be getting this wrong.
More subtly, Guardian columnist Rafael Behr makes a case for Starmer playing a tactically shrewd long game. Is there more to see here?
Chris Grey and his Brexit and Beyond blog, is the doyen of UK commentators on Brexit. His post of 9 December is headed ‘There’s a Better Strategy Available for Labour’. Grey is more critical of Starmer than Behr and feels Sir Keir has been too adamant in his negative attitude to single market membership. Helpfully Grey identifies courses Starmer could pursue that would put Labour on the right side of history and the Conservatives on the wrong.
Both the Liberal Democrats (who have excellent detailed policy in this area) and the Greens are already clearly on the side of the angels. In my view, they deserve more support.
But we are where we are and we will just have to see what better outcome the fractured and malfunctioning UK political system can contrive.
In 1791, 12 men met in a library in London to set out to ‘do something’ about ending the slave trade. Twenty years later the trade had been ended. Will two dozen people meeting in Bradford’s Council Chamber on a cold December evening similarly be the start of something big?