Labour has rejected Michael Gove’s vision of life outside the EU as “completely ridiculous utopian rubbish” after the justice secretary said Britain could walk away from the EU while retaining free access to European markets.
The shadow first secretary, Angela Eagle, said: “There are no countries that trade with the European Union that don’t have to accept free movement, that don’t end up paying virtually the same that we pay into the European budget. In their utopian dream, that may be what they want, but I can’t see a path to there from where we are now.”
Gove insisted that Britain could reject EU migrants and refuse to pay into the Brussels budget while remaining part of “a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey that all European nations have access to, regardless of whether they are in or out of the euro or the EU”.
His former special adviser, Dominic Cummings, said after Gove’s speech that he had spoken to “umpteen ambassadors”, inside and outside the eurozone, who had suggested that they would be willing to concede such a deal in the event of a vote to leave the EU.
Britain would be in a strong negotiating position when confronting its EU trading partners in talks, Gove claimed, because “they sell far more to us than we do to them”.
But Eagle, who believes that the referendum on 23 June is “on a knife edge,” said our £67.7bn trade deficit with the rest of the EU is a sign of economic weakness, not enhanced political leverage.
“I’ve never heard a trade deficit being used in that way,” she said. “It’s a problem, not an opportunity: it’s a sign of how narrow our economy is and how the government has neglected our manufacturing base.
“I don’t know what planet they’re on: planet Brexit.”
Eagle, who is regarded as a strong Commons perfomer and even tipped by some as a potential successor to Jeremy Corbyn, said she was too young to vote in the last referendum on our relationship with the EU but that “the world has changed” since then.
“Our economy is much more integrated into mainland Europe, in a way that those of us who grew up in the 1970s never thought would happen,” she said. “We are so much more continental now.
“I just don’t think you can unwind 42 years of economic integration when it’s your biggest customer and you can’t unwind it without a huge exogenous shock to the whole economy. We’re not in a position that’s very strong at the moment, or in a global economic structure that’s very strong. So would you volunteer for that now? I don’t think so. And I think it’s perfectly reasonable and not fearmongering to point it out.”
She also rejected Gove’s assertion that Britain would be free to strike better deals with countries such as China and India outside the EU. “I actually think our capacity to negotiate trade deals is increased and amplified by being in the EU,” Eagle said.
“If we went back to being quite an isolated island on the edge of Europe, we would still have to trade mostly with our near neighbours, because that’s how trade works, and then we would be in the queue behind the big trading blocs to negotiate treaties with India and any other developing countries we want.”
As well as setting out the economic case for Brexit, Gove used his speech to argue that a British exit from the EU could lead to “the democratic liberation of a whole continent” as other member states followed suit and threw off the shackles of Brussels.
He compared the EU, with what he called its “mock parliament”, to sprawling and ultimately unsustainable historical regimes, from the Ottoman empire to tsarist Russia, and said that by leaving, Britain would force the EU to reinvent itself.
Speaking at the headquarters of Vote Leave across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, Gove also ridiculed the idea repeatedly stated by the prime minister, David Cameron, that the government would immediately have to invoke article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which would set a two-year timetable for negotiating an exit deal.
“Preliminary, informal conversations would take place with the EU to explore how best to proceed,” Gove insisted. “It would not be in any nation’s interest artificially to accelerate the process and no responsible government would hit the start button on a two-year legal process without preparing appropriately.”
Some analysts have suggested that this logic means Vote Leave would push for Cameron to be replaced if voters choose to leave, but Gove rejected that idea.
The prime minister’s official spokeswoman insisted: “The PM has been very clear on what the government’s approach would be. The government is offering the people of the United Kingdom a choice about membership of the EU and we would act on that choice. The process is set out very clearly in the Lisbon treaty.”
In contrast to Gove’s position, Ukip, which is backing rival Brexit campaign Grassroots Out, wants article 50 to be triggered straight away. “I don’t want any shillyshallying, I want article 50 invoked straight away,” Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, told the Guardian.
“What we want is to use that two-year period to get sensible bilateral arrangements. What worries me is a government that would say ‘We’ve seen the vote and we’re going back to Brussels for more negotiations’. The establishment will do its best not to enforce the will of the people. We need to be very clear that leave means leave.”
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