Why membership of the single market is incompatible with the referendum result

By Conrad Lewandowski

The result to leave the European Union delivered by the referendum on the 23rd June was an earth-shattering blow to the global order and the political establishment. By a margin of nearly 1.3 million votes, the British people decided to reject political union with Europe and allow the country to forge a global role in the world. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.

Photo: Frédéric Simon

Or at least you’d think. But the last few months’ worth of debate over “hard” vs “soft” Brexit, which has become shorthand for membership of the single market and customs union, has a definite sense of déjà vu about it. All the same arguments being made now regarding membership of the single market are the same ones that were made before the referendum by the campaigns, and the British people made their decision having heard the arguments from both sides. Although people like Tim Farron often argue that voting for departure from the EU “is not the same as voting for a destination”, it was made very clear during the referendum campaign that the destination for Britain upon voting leave would be outside the single market – in fact it was probably just about the only thing that Stronger In and Vote Leave agreed on.

There are many reasons why implementing the public’s vote is not compatible with a soft Brexit. As shown by post-referendum polls, the primary reason that voters decided to vote leave was to have control over our own laws. Although a Norway-style relationship with the EU would bring back welcome powers such as in areas of fishing and farming, many EU rules are linked to the single market and we would have less say in these laws than we do now. However, if the UK were outside of the single market, businesses would only need to comply with these regulations when exporting into the EU, something only 6% of UK businesses do.

Remaining inside the single market would also mean accepting all four freedoms of the EU, including freedom of movement. Immigration was an important issue in the campaign, as people showed their dissatisfaction with a system which allows unlimited uncontrolled numbers of unskilled people to move to the UK from inside the EU, whilst an Indian scientist or Australian doctor has to go through a long process. The EU has shown very little appetite to compromise on this principle, and there is no prospect of serious reform of free movement from within the single market. Even modest proposals by David Cameron during his renegotiation for a temporary emergency brake on numbers were watered down to superficial changes on the amount of benefits that could be claimed by EU immigrants.

If Britain were also to remain inside the customs union, as some have suggested, then it would be even more of a betrayal of what the majority voted for in June. One of the Leave campaign’s main arguments was that by leaving the EU, we could regain the power to make our own trade deals with countries around the world. This would boost our economy and strengthen our global role. Since the vote, major economies such as India, Australia and South Korea have all signalled interest in trade deals with the UK. President-Elect Trump, a man who often boasts of his deal making prowess, and his new Republican government have talked about a UK-US trade deal, allowing British businesses greater access to an economy of 18.5 billion dollars, while a EU-US trade deal has shown little progress. Keeping Britain in the customs union would also mean Liam Fox would be left twiddling his thumbs as his role has been created to take advantage of these new opportunities.

With the British economy staying strong despite the cataclysmic predictions of an immediate recession, the government should ignore those who wish to frustrate Brexit and deliver the change people voted for, which can only be fully achieved by leaving the single market.