As Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood calls for the UK to rejoin the Single Market, a Liberal Democrat peer asks cautious opposition parties to consider its benefits

Opposition parties are rightly celebrating their triumphs in the recent by-elections, which saw the Conservatives suffer severe and historic defeats in both a ‘Red Wall’ seat and a traditional Tory heartland. But strong pro-Europeans have one serious concern: Labour’s recent announcement that it will not reverse Brexit but seek to improve it. Is this the right strategy at this perilous time?

In the face of Russian aggression, Chinese expansion and uncertainty about America’s future role, we need the strongest possible EU, militarily and economically, to defend freedom and justice in the world. 

Britain should surely draw as close to the EU as possible, strengthen the world influence of both, and not endorse the Conservative claim that Brexit is “done”. 

To propose that the UK should rejoin the EU is clearly unrealistic. But, as evidence mounts almost daily from nearly all leading economists of how withdrawal from the bloc has not only helped to make Britain, once again, the sick man of Europe, with the weakest industrial economy after Russia, is a refusal to accept the realities of Brexit  weakening Europe and the West?

One solution that has recently had some prominent publicity is that the UK should rejoin the Single Market – powerfully argued by a leading Conservative, Tobias Ellwood. He has argued that this would strengthen the British economy, no longer separated from what was its biggest and closest market; and to some extent strengthen the economy of the EU as well. 

It could also solve the problem of the Northern Ireland Protocol – as joint members of the same market, there would be no need for a border in the Irish Sea or for that matter between Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. All would gain. 

However, politically – perhaps understandably – from Labour’s point of view, given that a third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, rejoining the Single Market would likely be a step too far for the party to endorse. This is because such a move would require freedom of movement of labour – which Boris Johnson and his friends in the right-wing press would make great use of for their own ends.

Boris Johnson’s Real Brexit Betrayalwas to Abandon the Single Market

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Perhaps the wisest policy for opposition parties to propose would be to work to bring the UK and the EU as closely together as possible within the framework of the present EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. This could allow opportunities for improvements, for instance, to enable us to renew the UK’s participation in the Erasmus and Horizon programmes.

In any case, the agreement will be reviewed in 2024 – by which time much could have changed. A bitter, prolonged and deeply damaging trade conflict looms. The negative consequences of Brexit may become a much bigger issue in the public consciousness. Furthermore, immigration has already lost much of its unpopularity and may no longer be an obstacle to pro-European reforms.

In the years ahead, Labour and the liberal Democrats may come to the conclusion that joining the Single Market is an idea whose time has come.

Lord Taverne is a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords. He was the Labour MP for Lincoln from 1962 to 1972, when he was deselected by Labour. He resigned his seat and won re-election in the constituency as a Democratic Labour MP in 1973 to 1974


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