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Brexit - a way forward

Last year ended with a green light for our negotiations with the EU to move to stage 2. The EU side was generous because the Irish border issue is not yet convincingly solved. That is significant because it could make or break the negotiations.

Neither the UK nor the Irish Governments want a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland and all the parties in the north take the same view. However the DUP, whose MPs’ support for the Government is essential to the latter’s survival, are determined that they must not be treated differently from the rest of the UK.

That creates a real problem for the UK negotiators. Recovering control of our borders was one of the major objectives of the Leave campaign. Logically that requires a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which is an EU member state. Any suggestion that the border between the EU and the UK should run down the Irish Sea, leaving Northern Ireland in a special relationship with the EU, is totally unacceptable to the DUP and was the reason for the hiccup in the Brexit talks in December. Solving this problem is one of the biggest hurdles in this year’s talks.

Brexit has four key objectives: to leave the EU, to free the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, to end free movement between the EU and the UK, and to stop having to pay large sums to the EU. Hard line Brexiteers expect each of these objectives to be achieved and 130 Conservative backbenchers have threatened to bring down Mrs May if she compromises on them. Tory moderates, many Labour MPs and the Liberal Democrats are concerned about the effects on business, trade and the economy of leaving the single market and the customs union. 44% of our exports come from, and 53% of our imports go to the EU.  A hard Brexit would mean job losses, at least until new trade deals can be negotiated under World Trade Organisation rules and that could take years. This persuades them that a soft-Brexit is essential.

A possible solution is for the UK to remain in membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) when we leave the EU. They are not the same thing. All EU members are in the EEA but so too are Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The EEA is an internal market that is closely aligned to the EU single market but separate from it. Thus the EEA has no common agriculture and fisheries policies. Nor is the EEA subject to the European Court of Justice. Equally important from a Brexit perspective is that Article 112 of the EEA treaty would allow the UK to suspend free movement of labour. Liechtenstein has already done this and created a precedent we could follow. This option would be better than the Canada option because the latter excludes services from its deal with the EU and services are a major part of the UK economy.

Membership of the EEA offers continued access for our goods and services to European markets without accepting open borders. It also provides a way of resolving the Irish border issue. It also has the merit of retaining working relationships with our neighbours that are important for our security. Brexiteers have failed to take account of the growing threat from Russia. It would not come free but probably cost less than EU membership which was o.5% of UK GDP and just 1% of our public expenditure.

Brexit has deeply divided the nation and it is time to look for ways of healing these divisions. Those who pray might see this solution as a way forward worthy of prayerful consideration.

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