European Free Trade Association — [Mike Gapes in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:19 am on 7th February 2018.

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Photo of Paul Masterton Paul Masterton Conservative, East Renfrewshire 10:19 am, 7th February 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I will be very brief so the other two speakers have a chance to get in.

From the conversations I have had across East Renfrewshire in recent months, people are increasingly fed up. They do not want to hear any more about a hard Brexit, a soft Brexit, a red, white and blue Brexit, a “Brexit means Brexit” Brexit or even a “Brexit means Breakfast” Brexit. It is time for practical, workable solutions to be put forward in the national interest. They do not want ideology. If we have to give it a name, they want a “smart Brexit”, as my hon. Friend Stephen Hammond put it in a recent article.

We must be pragmatic, sensible and honest about the situation that faces us. Should we be optimistic? Yes, we can be and we should be, but that optimism has to be grounded in reality. It is far too simple an argument to say that the Germans need us to buy their cars and the French need us to buy their brie so it will all be great.

Just as Government contingency planning for all scenarios must cover a no deal, it must also cover us entering EFTA with the EEA bolt-on. I simply ask that that option is not taken off the table. Let me be clear, that is not necessarily a final destination—although we should not rule that out—but a safe harbour or staging post that would give us a suitable and workable framework from which to work while the free trade agreement is thrashed out and formalised.

EFTA guarantees to people who voted leave that we are implementing their democratic will to leave the European Union. If anything, it finds that sweet spot in reflecting that the EU referendum result, although decisive, was not overwhelming. We will be in the single market but not members of the EU. We will leave the EU sensibly—even conservatively—if we recognise that trade is only one part of our integrated and co-operative relationship that needs to be unpicked.

In EFTA, from day one, we will be outside the broken CAP system and the hated common fisheries policy, which are totemic issues that lie behind the largely ignored but sizeable minority leave vote in Scotland. Any question of ever closer union would be gone; we would not be under the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, as there is no direct effect and no supremacy of EEA law, and our membership dues would be significantly reduced. Freedom of movement can be dealt with flexibly within the EFTA system because, contrary to what is commonly asserted, Schengen is not part of the EEA agreement.

EFTA will also give us scope to form trade deals across the world from day 1 and to take advantage of the bloc’s existing FTAs while we create those bilateral agreements. Preferential access to EFTA’s markets while we finalise our new global trading relationships would provide a good basis for British business. Arguably, EFTA’s suite of trade agreements are a better fit for the UK than the EU’s, given our trading patterns, and they are more comprehensive. EFTA’s size and nimbleness as a bloc has allowed it to adapt its approach to free trade agreements to cover trade in services. EFTA would ultimately allow us to start our journey to our destination, while giving us the flexibility to ready ourselves for what may lie ahead.

If the referendum was not just about the economy but about increasing national sovereignty, I believe EFTA would tick that box too. That is why it is an option that also finds favour among many moderate leavers and it should not be dismissed out of hand by the Government. When we look back in 10 years’ time, we will not regret taking the time to get what was needed, but we will regret rushing to leave the European Union as quickly as possible to meet an arbitrary, self-imposed hard deadline.