Let’s keep our hats on, shall we? Democracy, politics and votes can be frustrating at times. That’s life.
I am a Remainer: had I been a UK voter yesterday I would definitely have been among the 16 million who voted to Remain rather than the 17 million who voted to Leave. While I acknowledge that the EU has plenty of imperfections, I believe both the UK and EU are “better together”. I think the Leavers are more wrong than right. The EU has been beneficial to peace, prosperity and stability these past 50 years. However, it is also suffering the strains of over-reach, both geographic and jurisdictional. Cameron was terribly reckless to have promised a referendum in this super-heated environment. But the voters have spoken and here we are.
It is important to understand what the Leavers were campaigning for. And what they were campaigning against. They were campaigning to end the EU idea of political integration across Europe, of the unification idea sometimes referred to as the United States of Europe. They were campaigning against a myriad of regulations and social policies and immigration policies. They were not campaigning against the trade and customs arrangements that were the original underpinning of the EU when Britain joined the EU in 1973.
For the UK, the alternative to the EU is not nothing. There are other arrangements, such as EFTA, which Leave campaigners have endorsed as a better alternative for the UK.
EFTA (the European Free Trade Area) is an association of EU-neighboring countries who operating a free trade area amongst themselves – and have negotiated free trade agreements with the EU and several countries, including Canada. The EFTA members are Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. EFTA operates in parallel with the EU and all four member states participate in the EU’s single market.
The UK was one of the founders of EFTA in 1960, and like several other earlier EFTA members (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden) eventually left EFTA to join the EU. I expect the UK, if it really does leave the EU (which I do not completely take for granted will happen) will rejoin EFTA if and when it does so.
In other words, the UK could be leaving the EU to join another multilateral organization which already has a well-functioning free trade agreement with the EU.
Further, even if/when the UK leaves the EU, as an EFTA member it could still remain a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). The EEA Agreement is the one that provides for the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital within the internal market of the EU.
The EEA Agreement specifies that membership is open to member states of either the European Union or European Free Trade Association (EFTA). EFTA states which are party to the EEA Agreement participate in the EU’s internal market without being members of the EU. They adopt most EU legislation concerning the single market, however with notable exclusions including laws regarding agriculture and fisheries.
It is possible for the UK to have close economic and other relationships with the EU, without being part of the EU or electing people to the EU Parliament, or surrendering sovereignty on the wider range of political, diplomatic and social policies which the EU has grown into over the years.
I am not making the case for Leaving; as I said, I think the UK and EU are “better together”. But the Leave alternative is not a complete breakdown or absence of UK-EU relations.
This is super complicated, and it is not easy to foresee how things will unfold. Three other ingredients which will become important include these:
(i) there are other EU members who have grown unhappy with the intrusive political apparatus of the EU; the EU itself could become less stable. It could change some of its practices. It could even disintegrate. I do not believe it will, but there is wider EU member dissatisfaction than just the EU. This could become pressure for EU reform.
(ii) within the UK, both Scotland and Northern Ireland yesterday voted strongly in favour of remaining in the EU. If the UK is too aggressive in the way it detaches from the EU, there is a risk it could lose Scotland to the EU and Northern Ireland to Ireland (which is an EU member). The UK could become just England and (maybe) Wales.
(iii) for both the EU and the EEA the free movement of people has become a flashpoint, fueled by widespread migration and security concerns. This is as big a concern in France as it is in the UK. I don’t know where this is headed.
Like I said, super complicated. You will start hearing a lot about EFTA and the EEA soon, for that is where the UK is headed – unless the EU and Cameron’s successor pull some rabbits out of their respective hats over the next year or two.
Rick Anderson is a Canadian political strategist, public affairs commentator and businessman. He is a partner in National Newswatch.