We must leave the EU, its internal market and its customs union at midnight on 29th March 2019. The transitional period must be an “implementation phase” – it should be a short period after 29/03/2019 but before the deal officially takes effect to allow businesses in the UK and the rest of the EU to adapt to the new arrangement and perhaps to settle any finer details which hadn’t already been settled in the Article 50 window. An EEA transition would be completely unrealistic and impractical.
Firstly, it would be legally impossible for us to seamlessly remain members of the EEA after Brexit. This was shown when David Cameron said on the Andrew Marr Show during the EU referendum campaign that the German Finance Minister had made it clear that upon a vote to leave the EU, the UK would have to leave the EU and the EEA and, since the referendum, the President of the European Council has made the same point. He said there is no hard or soft Brexit – you leave the EU and the EEA or you don’t leave the EU at all. The only way in which we are currently a member of the EEA is through our membership of the EU. Before we joined the EU, we were not members of the EEA. Therefore, after we officially leave the EU (two years after the invoking of Article 50), we will no longer be members of the EEA. Robin Walker confirmed this when he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the EU when he said the ‘EEA Agreement will automatically cease to apply’ on day one after Brexit (1st April 2019).
Philip Hammond also confirmed this in June when he said “When we leave the European Union we will leave the single market and the customs union. That’s not a matter of choice; that’s a matter of legal necessity”. Only countries which are already members of the EU or the EFTA (European Free Trade Association) can become new members of the EEA but on 1st April 2019, we will NOT be members of the EU or the EFTA. It could take months for us to apply for EFTA membership and, through that, EEA membership and a government minister in Norway has said that they may veto an application from the UK to join the EFTA after Brexit. It would therefore be legally impossible for us to seamlessly remain a member of the EEA after Brexit.
Even Pete North has rightly criticised the idea of an EEA transition: “just the process of joining an EFTA EEA arrangement is in itself is a major legal undertaking that would likely take anywhere up to five years – and we haven’t even started the ground work. Why would the EU, or indeed Efta, want to go to the trouble for what would be a temporary and disruptive process? Answer: they wouldn’t. More to the point, having done this, having given the UK a single market solution, the EU would not be obliged to invest any further energy in a bespoke FTA. Why bother?”.
The transition cannot just be based on an off-the-shelf model (such as the “Norwegian model” – EEA membership) as this would be lazy approach to the subject of transition and would not cater for our specific needs. The whole point of a transition is to bridge the gap between our current situation (full EU membership) and our future situation which will hopefully be a mutually-beneficially UK-EU bilateral free trade agreement. The transition cannot, therefore, on an off-the-shelf model as it must be unique and specifically suited to the UK and to our particular needs. In the words of David Davis, “the end state [at midnight on 29th March 2019] determines the transition”.
I personally am not exactly why a transition is needed at all as the Brexit talks must be concluded by the end of October 2018 to allow time for ratification of the deal and so the details of the deal will be known from then until it would, without any transition, take effect on 1st April 2019. This will allow both businesses and individuals five full months to plan and prepare for the specific free trade agreement that will effect on 1st April 2019. Businesses and individuals have known since 24th June 2016 that we will be leaving the EU and they have known since the Lancaster House speech at the end of January this year that we will be leaving the EU, its internal and its customs union. They will have therefore had 2 years to plan and prepare for Brexit, a year and two months to plan and prepare for a “clean Brexit” (exit from the EU, its internal market and its customs union) and a five months to both plan and prepare for the specific free trade agreement.
The limitations which the Government has itself already placed on a potential transition (no EEA, single market or customs union membership) rightly but significantly restrict the scope of any potential transitional arrangement and thus make the materialisation of such a potential transition less likely. The transition which the Government proposes would be both unique and unprecedented.
The longer we delay formally and officially leaving the EU, the longer we put off our ability to have full, permanent, independent and democratic control of our trade policy, our laws, our regulations, our money and our borders – all of the key advantages of leaving the EU. As John Longworth and Richard Tice of Leave Means Leave have both pointed out, all of the advantages of Brexit are contained within us and will materialise regardless of whether or not we secure a deal with the EU.
The Government has made it clear in both the Lancaster House speech and the Florence speech that “No [Brexit] deal is better than a bad deal” and I wrote an article on why I agree with this. However, if there is no Brexit deal at all, then there will inevitably and obviously be no transitional arrangement or implementation phase at all – we will just fall back/revert onto the safety net of trading on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. The Government therefore admit that a transition would not be necessary even if we were to end up with the least likely and worst-case scenario of no Brexit deal at all. However, the Government also oddly insists on seeking a transitional deal to the ideal scenario of a free trade agreement which would be much more similar to the status quo (full EU membership) than no deal would be.
Therefore, we should all unite and fight for a clean Brexit and oppose unrealistic and impractical ideas such as continued single market membership after Brexit and an EEA transition.