Post-Brexit: We need to embrace plan B

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Tim Farron is playing a blinder at the moment. Our clear support of the European Union, while accepting the referendum result, is absolutely right.

But we need a dual track approach here. We need to have an alternative to EU membership lined up. “Plan B”, if you like.

It seems to me that rejoining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) (we left in 1973 after 13 years membership) and staying in the European Economic Area (EEA), is the answer to the current UK post-Brexit conundrum.

This will give us the economic benefits of access to the single market, while giving some control over immigration from the EU.

Though it grieves me to do this, I will use Theresa May’s leadership announcement speech as a reference point. She said:

…as we conduct our negotiations, it must be a priority to allow British companies to trade with the single market in goods and services – but also to regain more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe.

To me, such a declaration is entirely consistent with EFTA/EEA membership.

EFTA/EEA membership already provides “more control of the numbers of people” who enter a member country via Article 112(1) of the Agreement on the European Economic Area under chapter 4 “Safeguard Measures”:

If serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist are arising, a Contracting Party may unilaterally take appropriate measures under the conditions and procedures laid down in Article 113.

The wealth of EEA agreements, protocols and precedent (ref: Liechtenstein) concerning this Article are well beyond my very limited understanding (and I note the current Swiss experience), but there certainly seems to be great scope for arguing for EFTA/EEA membership, alongside Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein (Switzerland are in EFTA but not the EEA).

Article 112(1) looks like the elusive “emergency brake” on immigration to me. There is plenty of wiggle room here. We should absolutely avoid getting tunnel vision about binary choices. I note in passing that even in the EU, Austria and Hungary have erected vast fences to close much of their borders – how more “in control” can one get than having a border fence?

Through the EFTA/EEA solution, we would “regain control over immigration” (not a phrase the premise of which I buy into but it would reasonably satisfy those who want that) while remaining in the single market. We would not be out in the cold. We would still give substantial sums to the EU, thereby maintaining our link with the 27 countries in the EU, and be part of a strengthened EFTA/EEA with other European partners.

This seems to me to be a good progressive solution while accepting the referendum result and acknowledging fears about being “out of control” of immigration from the rest of Europe.

The sooner this plan is agreed upon, and moved forward through negotiation, the better – both from an economic viewpoint but also with respect to healing the current state of national angst.

To me, this formula has all the hallmarks of a great British compromise.

To eschew this option and go the “full fat” World Trade Organisation rules route would be to cast this country out into outer darkness amidst a complete downgrading of our economy. To do such national, epic self-harming on the basis of a binary referendum on a single simple question in flawed circumstances (well described by Professor A.C.Grayling) would be a gross blunder on an historic scale.

That is why it is imperative that we have a General Election to test the cases for the post-Brexit options (see this detailed paper), as well as for the status quo of EU membership now the rubble is settling from the referendum, and provide a mandate for going forward. I acknowledge that the EFTA/EEA route would bring howls of protest from Farage and supporters. So let’s test it at the ballot box.

I agree with Nick that the needed Post-Brexit decisions are so hugely momentous, and so outside the existing mandate for the British government via the 2015 general election, that we must have a General Election to hammer out the post-Brexit plan. It would be monumentally outrageous if we move forward on the basis of a vote of the 0.002% of the population in the Tory party, with 99.998% of us acting as eavesdroppers – the most absurd and bizarre abdication of democracy imaginable.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Kevin colwill 4th Jul '16 - 11:15am

    I agree Tim Farron is doing in positioning the Lib Dems in a sensible place but I have to ask is the message getting out there?
    Would you have heard him unless you actively seek out Liberal opinion or are a dyed in the wool news junkie?
    I know there are limits to how much exposure the Lib Dems can expect given the hectic news agenda in other parties.
    Even so I think we have a right to ask if the Lib Dem message couldn’t pushed further up the news agenda – if only as a contrast to the in fighting in Labour and the Tories.

  • Matt (Bristol) 4th Jul '16 - 11:59am


    I feel we still need to follow through with the party of IN agenda.

    We need to continue to push the central message that we are the only party will seek a parliamentary mandate for re-entry.

    I agree we also need a proposal on how we will work to scrutinise any exit negotiations, and to seek to make them more liberal and less isolationist.

    But when we make that proposal, we need to make it clear that that does not constitute a U-turn and a ‘ratting’ on the first point, about re-entry.

    There is – still – precious little air time to get that across without diminishing the first message, which has still not yet been heard by all those who might find it attractive.

    A few short Guardian-related swallows do not make a summer.

  • I wish I could believe that your proposed compromise would satisfy the xenophobes and extremists who are now making clear that they want to move on from Brexit to getting all possible immigrants deported, but I very much doubt that your compromise will be palatable to them. It looks to me as if Arron Banks is moving forward with his expressed intention of founding his own even worse than UKIP party, with the intention of dragging a weak Tory prime minister to the further right as hard and fast as possible, having been given cover for this by Tory/Leaver dishonesty and pandering to xenophobia. I see no sign that any of the Tory contenders are prepared to stand up against the extremists who now dominate the right wing of their party and it looks to me as if fear of UKIP will now be the guiding star of Tory policy, which is a disaster for all of us. I hope I am wrong about this, but I believe we are heading for an era of right-wing violence and intimidation directed at immigrants and anyone who dares to stand up for them and basic human decency. The BNP are more active now than they have been for decades in the belief that a vote to Leave was a licence to expel all foreigners immediately. This is what the Leavers have wrought.

  • I must be in a minority but don’t have a problem with migrants or people who come here to live and work from overseas. Just a shame there are so many xenophobes out there who chose the wrong path.

  • Both strategically and in terms of the politics Liberal Democrats wish to advance this is an appalling suggestion. It would constitute the kind of mixed message that would keep the Party, its leader and its leading voices out of the public eye. It is also pointless, obviously full EEA is the next best to full EU status. The idea that the other 27 EU states would accept any derogation of the principle of freedom of movement of goods, persons, services and capital between member states for a non-member state is quite risible, particularly when it is understood that such a concession would be an open invitation for racist and xenophobic groups across the EU. This is not something Liberal Democrats would possibly wish for.

  • May I suggest an alternative Plan B on immigration? This will be controversial, but we I fear we can’t duck this any longer.

    I don’t believe the vote against immigration is due to every EU member, but there are certain countries which are perceived to be far behind the UK economically, and residents are coming to the UK to earn more money than back home, and it’s an unequal relationship.

    When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, we applied transitional controls based on a time period, before free movement applied? I suggest we should propose transitional controls based on economic difference instead.

    I’ve copied a list of GDP per capita for EU member states (data is IMF 2014, values in USD) Just suppose we came to an arrangement where free movement would operate where the country’s GDP was say half of our own. This would keep movement for the vast bulk of our expats, allow freedom of movement within western Europe, and go a long way to calm tensions over eastern European immigration?

    Is that racist? Very possibly yes. But at present, if a nation is within the EU (or EEA) free movement applies, but not to those outside. So what would make this sort of arrangement any more discriminatory than the one that’s just been rejected? I think we have to get beyond seeing Europe as a single block, and start to see the distinctions between the sovereign nations as well as the whole.

    Luxembourg 111,716
    Denmark 56,147
    Ireland 51,356
    Austria 51,306
    Netherlands 48,223
    Germany 47,589
    United Kingdom 45,653
    Belgium 45,383
    France 44,747
    Sweden 43,986
    Finland 43,492
    Italy 35,823
    Spain 31,946
    Greece 29,635
    Cyprus 28,237
    Malta 24,876
    Slovenia 24,019

    Portugal 22,130
    Estonia 19,670
    Czech Republic 19,563
    Lithuania 16,385
    Latvia 15,728
    Poland 14,378
    Hungary 13,881
    Croatia 13,493
    Slovakia 12,925
    Romania 10,034
    Bulgaria 7,752

  • Rightsaidfredfan 4th Jul '16 - 2:48pm

    A good compromise would be EEA including free movement of people on condition that free movement does not have to be granted to the citizens of countries that join the EU in the future (I.e turkey). That’s free movement and free access to the internal market. New joiners would have to join knowing that their citizens don’t get an automatic right to work in the uk.

  • David Allen 4th Jul '16 - 3:13pm

    If this is Plan B, what we might settle for as second-best if that were necessary to avoid the worst, then fine. If we held the balance between a Brexit-heavy party and a Brexit-lite party, we might agree that Plan B as our red line for a deal with the Brexitliters.

    But as pointed out above, we will horribly mix our messages and diffuse our impact if we give this any more credence than that.

    There is a need for compromise, for an approach that will begin to heal a very fractured nation. But we won’t get there by offering all the concessions up front. (Like we did last time, in fact?) The Tories will just steamroller us into insignificance if we do that.

  • David Allen 4th Jul '16 - 3:32pm

    Let me try an alternative compromise Plan B and see if it flies.

    As shown on another thread:

    invoking Article 50 is fraught with danger. Basically it locks us in a cage with the EU tiger and we find out if he is hungry. It is the point at which our lawyer will have to write “Dear Mr EU, thank you for providing your standard terms and conditions of agreement, unfortunately we cannot accept them, here are the terms and conditions which we intend to apply as the basis for an agreement with yourselves, yours faithfully….” Cue for indefinite stasis, even if the PM is an avowed Brexiter.

    So – let’s work from the assumption that (whether or not we have succeeded in forcing a GE) the PM is sitting there, with Article 50 in front of himself/herself, unsigned.

    Then the compromise is:

    (1). Let’s give ourselves 5 more years in the EU before we sign this.

    (2). However, after those 5 years we will hold a second referendum, and this time it will be binding. Furthermore, in deference to the first referendum result, our default option will be to Leave. This will only be overturned if over 60% of the vote on referendum 2 is to Remain.

    So – The EU and the Remain campaign get 5 years to turn things around. But, they had better make good use of their time. Unless they can win a 12% swing to Remain, we will be Out. Big pressure on EU to cut the cr*p. Big pressure on Remainers to listen to Leavers’ genuine concerns and sort them out (I do NOT mean “educate” them that they are all ignorant northerners!) Possibly, big win-win situation.

    Could this fly?

  • Mark Seaman 4th Jul '16 - 4:25pm

    tpfkar ..”When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, we applied transitional controls based on a time period, before free movement applied? I suggest we should propose transitional controls based on economic difference instead. ”

    .. You just summed up where the EU went wrong, in one post. Well put.
    The relative income levels at least need to be in what another contributor on a separate post called the same ball-park.

  • jedibeeftrix 4th Jul '16 - 5:42pm

    Keep calm and carry on.

    Good article, Paul.

  • @David Allen:
    “Cue for indefinite stasis”
    It’s not indefinite. It lasts two years.

    “Could this fly?”

  • Little Jackie Paper 4th Jul '16 - 7:53pm

    I think that some sort of Norway arrangement would walk a referendum. It’s the obvious choice.

  • Mick Taylor 4th Jul '16 - 8:23pm

    So you think an arrangement like Norway is a good deal?
    1. We pay roughly what we pay now, but with no rebate and no grants, so it really does cost £350 million a week
    2. We get some access to the single market, but not food [that’s what Norway gets]
    3. We accept free movement
    4. Possibly we accept Schengen
    5. We have to accept all the EU’s standards and regulations, but get no say in them

    And you think a UK Prime Minister and the UK electorate will go for that?
    Think again.

  • Mick Taylor 4th Jul '16 - 8:29pm

    1. The 2 years doesn’t start till we invoke Article 50. So if the UK government stalls on doing so it could last much longer than 2 years
    2. Even when we do so, we can’t start making any treaties with anyone else till the article 50 process is finished.
    3. We don’t have the people to do the negotiating on trade treaties, because we have had EU people to do it for us for 43 years.
    4. No major state has left before, so absolutely no-one knows how the deal is going to be done, but article 50 makes it clear that all the power is in the hands of the EU and if they want to shaft us they can and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. The EU will want to do everything it can ‘pour decourager les autres’, so there will be no concessions at all.

  • Little Jackie Paper 4th Jul '16 - 8:35pm

    Mick Taylor.

    To answer your question. I think it is the best, most realistic deal – yes.

    1 – All options will have some cost.
    2 – Fine by me.
    3 + 4 – I have no objection to some form of free movement. At the moment Schengen countries don’t always live with Schengen.
    5 – Other countries live with it. We don’t get a say in the standards for many countries.

    Yes. I think people would go for it. If you don’t want it then that is, of course, your value judgment.

    Now, I realise that I’ve got no chance here but…please….can you perhaps not spit vitriol at me?

    Good evening.

  • jedibeeftrix 4th Jul '16 - 9:14pm

    @ mick

    Sounds pretty good to me…

  • A dredful idea Paul that sends all the wrong messages. Your efforts should be bing put into fighting against this referendum and making g ure we remain a membrane of the RU

  • You’re very right to say we need defence in depth. We’d like to roll back this whole ugly campaign, but without a massive groundswell of support we’re not going to win a mandate to do that. We’d like to hold the country inside the EU, but we’re not gonig to get that without a dramatic change in the political climate.

    The country has spoken, and the status quo cannot stand. We cannot continue with our current migration laws without serious alterations.

    The question is how to nudge the next PM into negotiating the most humane, liberal, internationalist, cosmopolitan brexit she can. We’ve got to work out what our red lines are, where we fall back to, what we hold out for in the worse case. All that at the same time as pushing for the best outcome we can, and come as close to holding the UK in as we’re able.

  • David Allen 5th Jul '16 - 12:16am

    Mick Taylor, “@littlejackiepaper
    So you think an arrangement like Norway is a good deal?”

    Let’s try to come together on this. It’s a mediocre deal. Staying in would be far better. Though the EU does have many faults, a Norway deal would remedy very few of them. But, a Norway deal would be tolerable, if indeed the EU is willing to grant it. A complete break would be far worse.

  • David Allen 5th Jul '16 - 12:21am

    Mick Taylor, answering David-1: “The 2 years doesn’t start till we invoke Article 50. So if the UK government stalls on doing so it could last much longer than 2 years.”

    Absolutely right. So David-1, your instant-thumbs-down response to my proposal

    is far too facile and dismissive.

    Some more considered comments, whether favourable or otherwise, would be welcome. We need a plan. Paul Walter has suggested one, I have suggested another. If we can work on this seriously and constructively, I am sure we can develop a viable consensus. If.

  • I am happy that the Libdems should present themselves as a pro-EU party, but please, not uncritically. We are now seeing how other countries also have some difficulties with the EU as it stands. The list of hugely varied GDP levels is one issue. The varied background of EU members – long-time democrats, post Russian dominance, post Third Reich occupation, etc, all needs to be looked at afresh. But Jean-Claude Juncker for one seems utterly complacent and unregretful for having set up Luxemburg as a tax haven… Schengen surely needs a fresh look, and Euro land.

  • All of this interesting discussion shows that we need a negotiating stance approved by the UK people before we send in our letter of resignation, because that is what it is. We can then put to the country the real alternatives, stay or try for this idea. Of course we have a situation where we may not get it, because we have to resign before we can negotiate.

    However this is what happens when you have an I democratic body involved. I mean HM Government of course.

  • Sorry I democratic should have been undemocratic. My iPad has to have its say!

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Jul '16 - 2:41pm

    Paul Walter

    It seems to me that rejoining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) (we left in 1973 after 13 years membership) and staying in the European Economic Area (EEA), is the answer to the current UK post-Brexit conundrum.

    Yes it is, but what will it result in? If we push it, it will turn out that Brexit doesn’t actually have much effect, and we’ll be blamed for that, it’ll be “you sabotaged it by pushing us into this system that means we aren’t in much of a different situation from where we were before Brexit”.

    I think our line must be to the Brexiteers “You’ve won, and you won by making extravagant claims as to what leaving the EU would give us. So now it is up to you to show how those claims can be met. Go on, tell us how.”

    As we have already seen, the leading figures of the Brexit are dropping out because they know they cannot live up to those claims. They know they cannot deliver.

    So for now I think we should just keep quiet and let those left squirm trying to do it. Our line should be that as we lost, we will now just abstain on any vote about implementing Brexit, because how can we participate in something we said from the start would not deliver? Actually, I wouldn’t quite say that – we should draw the line and say there are things we would oppose. I say that because having thought this through, I can see that Brexit could deliver something radically different, but the only way it could do that is by acting in a nasty illiberal way.

    I don’t think we should actually leave the EU until a firm alternative has been developed. At this point, it would be right to ask the people whether they want that alternative, now we know what it is.

    We ourselves who are anti-Brexit must work hard with the rest of the EU to stop them from just kicking us out. We need to make clear that it was only just over half those who voted who voted to leave, and many of those had little idea what it meant and were doing so as a vague protest.

  • “I think our line must be to the Brexiteers “You’ve won, and you won by making extravagant claims as to what leaving the EU would give us. So now it is up to you to show how those claims can be met. ”

    I agree with Matthew Huntbach. Only true Brexiteers should be allowed in the room once Article 50 negotiations begin. Let’s be honest with ourselves, Remainers can’t possibly get a good deal for Britain, because their heart just isn’t in it, and the temptation to obfuscate the process would be ever present.
    So yes, at last we can agree,… Remainers stay outside the room, and leave it to the Leavers to do the heavy lifting of negotiations.?

  • David Hollingsworth 6th Jul '16 - 5:10pm

    Can one ask when the new Prime minister looks at the options . All of them a lot worse than staying in the EU. Perhaps they might have second throughts. With the country going into recession and prospect of huge numbers of jobs leaving the UK if we not fully in the single market. We see other countries already touting for jobs to move to their country. make the UK economy weaker for ever. I just cannot believe any responsible Prime minister could recommend that as a good for Britain even after referendum result. A lot of the people who voted for Brexit will be it. I don’t they voted for that. I certainly won’t get all the extra money promised for the NHS as the tax revenues tank.
    Perhaps I am a bit naïve to think a Tory Party leader cares about the country . Have not mentioned the country splitting with Scotland going of into the Sunset
    Will brexit to doom.
    I just hope sanity will prevail . probably not much hope.

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