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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:30 am on 7th February 2018.

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Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 10:30 am, 7th February 2018

I really do not have time.

Those repercussions are among the reasons—they are possibly the single most pressing reason—why we have to persuade the Government that they have got it wrong. The unilateral and politically motivated decision to leave the customs union was a mistake, but there is still time for it to be rectified. There is still time for the Government to accept that they got it wrong and that they do not have a referendum mandate to take us out of the customs union or the single market.

I was interested in the point made by James Cartlidge that the four EFTA countries are among the wealthiest in the world by GDP per capita. It is not only EFTA countries that are in the top 15 or 16, and certainly above the United Kingdom; so are Luxembourg, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Finland and Denmark, none of which are in EFTA but all of which are in the single market. Membership of the single market and the customs union may be a factor, or it may be that all the countries I mentioned and all four EFTA countries have the status of being small, independent, modern European nations—perhaps that is what we should be looking at, but that is an argument for another day.

I must sound a final word of caution. Although hon. Members have referred favourably to the Norwegian and Swiss situations, we were told yesterday in the Exiting the European Union Committee about the Swiss People’s party, which is a bit like UKIP with a Swiss accent but is the biggest single party in the Swiss Parliament. It has initiated the process of calling a referendum—a popular initiative, as the Swiss constitution describes it—to extricate Switzerland from EFTA and pull out from agreements with the European Union. Although a lot of countries originally saw EFTA or the European economic area as part of an accession process to get from nowhere to full membership of the European Union, it appears that there is a big danger of the hard right in Switzerland treating EFTA as a way of cutting its links with the European Union. So let us be careful: we may think that the minority in this House who want a hard Brexit will be satisfied and let things lie if we somehow persuade the Government to go for EFTA, but it will not be long before they seek to follow the Swiss example. They will agitate for a referendum as they did before, not on leaving the European Union this time but on the hardest of all hard Brexits.

As I have said before, and as I think the vast majority of hon. Members believe, a hard Brexit would be economically and socially calamitous for the people of these islands. It is still not too late for the Government to give a guarantee that they will not go for that kind of Brexit. They should not simply say that they want to join EFTA, but go further and say that they want to remain in the single market and the customs union—not for two or three years after we leave the European Union, but for as long as we possibly can.