Friday, 6 November 2015

Shaping the EU debate?

In a previous post, I mentioned my article on The Conversation website, which tried to clarify what different Brexit options would mean. It has received over 16,000 hits – apparently an unusually high number – and although I certainly can’t claim that it has shaped the debate, the points raised are beginning to be more widely discussed. Thus last the British Prime Minister spelled out that the ‘Norway model’ would not be viable for the UK.  And this week the Policy Network published a pamphlet insisting, exactly as I had in my article, that the Brexit options be differentiated.
This isn’t an arcane issue, it is the central flaw in the Brexit case. If they champion Norway (or Switzerland) as models then they can’t leverage their main populist argument of reducing immigration, because if the UK remains in the single market, even if not in the EU, then free movement of people still obtains. So, then, they have to argue for a free trade agreement model. But that position is fraught with difficulties. There is no way of knowing what the terms of such a deal would be, nor its timeframes. Moreover, it would mean exiting (and having to try to re-negotiate over unknown timeframes) the EU deals with third-party countries, and from a much weaker position since the UK market is so much smaller than that of the EU.
The US have said this week that they would not be interested in a free trade deal with the UK, and that is very significant since the same thing would likely be true of many other countries. The issue is a simple one: trade deals are increasingly between platforms and blocs rather than individual countries. China, too, is urging the UK to stay in, as is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Meanwhile, it’s beginning to be recognized that trade and economics are not the only problems for the Brexit cause. The notion that ‘taking control of our borders’ is unproblematic is also starting to be debated. Of the many issues around that (including moving the border from Calais to the UK, and the position of Brits living in the EU), this week the position of Ireland has been raised. A full Brexit would mean creating a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, bringing with it serious problems for the still fragile peace process in Ulster.
Of course none of this makes a dent in the determination of hardcore opponents of British membership. Nothing could or will. What matters is what floating voters make of it all. At the moment, opinion is 54-46 in favour of staying in, but it is reckoned that the ‘hard’ vote for both in and out is 25%. There is much to play for still, especially as most of the ‘soft vote’ are not yet engaged with the still embryonic campaign. There is still plenty of time to reshape the debate. Watch this space as the story unfolds.

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