This article was first published in the i News on 29 March 2017.
A majority of people who participated in last year's referendum voted to leave the European Union. Now, as a result, the Prime Minister has announced the two year process for our withdrawal will now begin. But this unelected Prime Minister has no mandate to pursue Brexit in a way that will make our country poorer, and jeopardise British jobs and livelihoods. During the 2015 general election campaign, the Conservative Party made an unconditional commitment in their manifesto to "safeguard British interests in the Single Market" regardless of the referendum outcome. "We say: Yes to the Single Market", they proclaimed. On the 26 May 2016, less than a month before the referendum, before a private audience of Goldman Sachs bankers, Theresa May was explicit about the importance of Britain remaining a member of the single market: "I think the economic arguments are clear...being part of a 500-million trading bloc is significant for us." Not only was she right but it was an acknowledgement that Single Market membership - in or out of the EU - was a Tory manifesto commitment. It is why she should now be fighting for Britain to remain a member of the Single Market, albeit having left the European Union, in these Brexit negotiations.
Being a member of the European Single Market not only ensures that we are able to buy goods that come to the UK from the EU tariff-free. It also provides access to a market of half a billion consumers for Britain's businesses in the single market area. Consequently, the EU is our biggest customer, with 44 per cent of our exports of goods and services going to the bloc. The Prime Minister knows the importance of Single Market membership to our economy. On her return from the last European Council summit, she told the House of Commons she "called for further steps to complete the single market and the digital single market". It is therefore extraordinary in light of all this that she should break a Tory party manifesto pledge and, before negotiations have even started, declare that she will not make any attempt whatsoever to keep Britain a member of the single market after we leave the EU. This is totally unacceptable.
Staying in the Single Market outside of the EU should be the goal. Norway and Iceland are both outside the EU but in the Single Market -- so it is hard to understand why she has taken this - the best economic deal for our country - off the table. During the campaign, several leading Brexiteers were at pains to point out we could exit but remain members of the Single Market. Her Tory MEP, Daniel Hannan, who has been described as the "godfather" of Brexit, told the British people that "no-one is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market." Yet she insists on the opposite and therefore the most painful of Brexits.
There are two principle arguments she is advancing for ruling out Single Market membership before negotiations have begun. First, she claims that it is impossible for us to be able to regain more control over the way our immigration system works with us being a member of the single market. However, serious analysis of the political situation in Europe, for example by the think tank Policy Network, suggests European countries are willing to reform free movement, as they face the challenges posed by anti-immigration populists like Marine Le Pen in France. With a diplomatic strategy based on goodwill, rather than grandstanding, the Government would have a good chance of keeping us in the Single Market while making the changes to our immigration system that voters want. Instead they have chosen to wave the white flag before even having the conversation.
Secondly, she argues it is impossible to be part of this Single Market without accepting its regulations when, as a non EU member, you will not have had any say in making the rules. This ignores the fact that even if we leave, we will need to abide by European rules whenever a British company sells a product to a European country under any Free Trade Agreement we reach with them. There are three main standards for products in the world -- American, European, and Chinese. The UK will almost certainly simply go on using European standards after Brexit.
What matters is that we retain a say over these standards, and we are more likely to have some say and influence over the rules and standards if we are a Single Market member rather than simply having the ability to access and sell into that market. The United Kingdom is a great country, with the second largest economy in Europe and is the greatest military power in Europe. It should not be beyond a skilful and nimble government, with the right negotiation strategy, to retain Single Market membership and achieve influence over the rules which apply there.
None of this will come as news to the Prime Minister. But she has been taken hostage by the extreme fringe of her own party, and unfortunately fears them more than any other force in the country. That is what drives her defeatist and unambitious approach to the negotiations. The job of the Labour Party and others going forward must be to make clear that a better alternative strategy exists, and that EU withdrawal does not require us to sacrifice jobs and give up the best economic future for Britain.