Why Remainers are split on EEA membership

It all comes down to whether you think Brexit can and should be stopped...

Today Parliament debates arguably the most important of the 15 Brexit amendments passed by the Lords: the motion to stay in the European Economic Area. 

Amendment 110A (now 51) would ensure the Tories kept us in the EEA. That is essentially membership of the single market.

Everyone wants ‘access’ to the single market, but proper access – i.e. an unfettered ability to trade – is unlikely to come without being in the EEA.

Same rules = no need for border checks, and companies can sell across the EU without having to have 28 (or 27…) versions of the same product.

The fly in the ointment is that with that membership, comes all the rules of the single market – the standards on services, capital and freedom of movement.

And the ‘same rules’ also means the UK – outside the EU decision-making structures – would have no say over them. Single market membership would also likely continue free movement between Britain and the EU – almost as we see it today. 

That is not to pass comment on either of these facts – it is simply the reality.

It is also a bizarre reality that the same Brexiteer camp who, during the referendum, said an EEA deal was going to be the way forward after Brexit, now say it would be a betrayal.

And some of the diehard Remainers who rejected EEA membership as a viable option during the referendum who are now rallying MPs to back the amendment today. Other Remainers – such as LFF writer Richard Corbett MEP (Labour’s leader in the European Parliament) take a very different view.

So we see two very different responses from the main pro-Remain camp – and it’s arguably down to their strategy for stopping Brexit. 

On one side, we have Best for Britain – the group most hated by the Daily Mail – opposing EEA membership. They are hoping for a referendum on the terms of the deal, with the option of stopping Brexit. In some ways they are the most ‘consistent’ Remainers – opposing EEA membership during the EU referendum, and now too.

Because if you are hoping for another referendum, this debate is about whether voters would go for an EEA deal, or staying in the EU.

As their CEO Eloise Todd says:

“If the government brings back a deal that looks like the EEA, let that be put to the people and compared to our current terms. All the same rules, but with real power to actually shape laws, decide on them and, in many cases, to veto any moves that might not be best for Britain…

“Leaving the EU means leaving behind that veto. We need to be in the club to take back control.”

In another statement they noted:

“[It] looks remarkably similar to what we already have with the EU – except without our current ability to influence EU decisions. It’s not a popular idea, and it’s not a solution.”

Yet for Open Britain, the successor of Britain Stronger in Europe, are backing the EEA amendment:

“[It] could cost the UK £29 billion a year and more than 300,000 jobs by 2030…

“Refusing to vote for the cross-party amendment in favour of EEA membership is a historic mistake, and [Labour] won’t be forgiven if [they] let Theresa May get away with a hard Brexit when we have the power to stop it.”

That last line is crucial. The power to stop a ‘hard Brexit’ – but not the power to stop Brexit altogether.

Open Britain are “leading the fight against a hard, destructive Brexit…We will continue to campaign for a close relationship with Europe.”

They back a referendum on the deal, but though they want to remain in the EU, the group say it is for Parliament to decide whether there would be an option for staying in on the ballot.

In contrast, Best for Britain are much more public in their desire to halt Brexit altogether – and whether to turn a ‘people’s vote’ into a de facto ‘second referendum’.

For Remainers, backing membership of the EEA comes down to one crucial question: do you think Brexit can and should be stopped? 

If you do, there’s little point backing membership of the EEA – it’s EU membership but without a say on the rules. And there’s a strategic question: if the choice on a future referendum ballot is between a ‘hard Brexit’, and ‘membership of the EU’, people might opt for staying in. The choice is less clear if the choice is between EEA and EU membership. Therefore rejecting EEA membership now may seem wise.

And if you don’t think Brexit can/should be stopped, EEA membership the least worst option – the closest relationship to Europe possible. No option to stop Brexit on the ballot paper means you just want the best deal possible.

This is the ideological and strategic split within the Remain campaign – and it will come to a head today.

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

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