A group of Labour and Conservative MPs are hoping to force a vote on whether the UK should stay in the European Economic Area for at least a few years after Brexit, in the belief that it may be possible to force Theresa May to yield on the issue.
MPs campaigning for a softer Brexit are increasingly concerned that the government’s EU withdrawal bill will not allow the UK to stay in the European Economic Area even temporarily before the final deal with the EU comes into force in around 2022.
But Labour MPs such as Stephen Kinnock, Chuka Umunna and Heidi Alexander are considering ways to work with some Tories to keep the UK in EEA, at least for a transitional period, when the bill comes to the House of Commons in early September. One option would be for a backbencher to table an amendment asking the UK to remain in the EEA during the post-Brexit transition.
One Conservative MP fighting against hard Brexit told the Guardian it could be the biggest battle of the EU withdrawal bill and that there was a chance of defeating the government unless it gave more guarantees about the transitional period.
No 10 has ruled out staying in the EEA, saying exit will happen automatically at the point of Brexit, and rejected an “off the shelf” arrangement based on EEA membership for the transitional period. Members of the EEA are part of the EU’s single market; existing non-EU members include Norway and Iceland.
However, Philip Hammond, the chancellor, is known to believe there is no time for the UK to negotiate a bespoke agreement with the EU and has told businesses it would be best to have an off-the-shelf arrangement, which would mirror the advantages of the single market and largely persist with free movement.
May is particularly vulnerable to defeat because it is understood that Labour wants to keep its option open on the issue and not rule out any routes that could avoid a cliff-edge Brexit in March 2019.
In a sign that there is common ground between Labour and some of the Tories pushing for a softer Brexit, Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, told the Guardian that he was planning to table amendments to the EU withdrawal bill to “ensure it is possible to achieve transitional arrangements on the same basic terms – including the single market and the customs union”.
He said the legislation in its current form was not acceptable, partly because it “dismantles the apparatus of the single market and the customs union and it extinguishes any role for the European court of justice”.
Any alliance between Labour and Conservatives pushing for a soft Brexit would be dangerous for May, as her majority with the DUP has been slashed to 13. This means that as few as seven Tory rebels could spell a defeat for the government when the bill is debated in the Commons early in September, although they would be more likely to back an amendment tabled by a Labour backbencher than one of Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench team.
If MPs voted in favour of staying in the EEA, the government would still argue as a point of law that the UK would necessarily leave at the EEA at the point of exit from the EU. However, it could choose to try to negotiate to remain in the EEA at an international level if parliament had made its wishes clear.
Supporters of staying in the EEA at least temporarily believe it is the best model for providing certainty for businesses without EU membership.
The idea was was backed on Tuesday by William Hague, the former foreign secretary, who said there was “clear potential for Brexit to become the occasion of the greatest economic, diplomatic and constitutional muddle in the modern history of the UK, with unknowable consequences for the country, the government and the Brexit project itself”.
He said Hammond’s plan for a transitional period of up to three years after March 2019 along the lines of an existing off-the-shelf model, such as staying in the European Economic Area, was the best way of trying to rescue Brexit.
Any suggestion that the UK could stay in the European Economic Area is also fiercely rejected by the hardest Brexit supporters. Steve Baker, the Brexit minister, said last month “it was like putting blood in the water to even talk about the EEA”.
But it is legally uncertain whether the UK is able to leave the EEA without the permission of parliament, after the high court ruled this year that it was too soon to make a judgment. As recently as March, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said it was likely that parliament would have to have a say on any changes to the European Economic Area Act 1993, but since the election, there may now be no majority for exiting the EEA.
The official government position is that the UK will leave the EEA automatically when it leaves the EU, but a Whitehall source told the Guardian that view is not shared by all the government’s lawyers or ministers. In a plea for cross-party backing, Kinnock said: “The EEA is a well-established and well understood arrangement that allows us to leave the EU by walking calmly over a bridge rather than leaping recklessly off a cliff edge.”
Alexander said she was also “left wondering whether the chancellor has actually read the EU withdrawal bill”. “He might fancy the idea of staying in the EEA for a transition period, but the text of the government’s bill seeks to [dismantle] the EEA Act of 1993,” she added.
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the EU said: “We have repeatedly made clear that we will not be members of the EEA after exit. The UK is a member of the EEA by virtue of our membership of the EU.
“Therefore, when we leave the EU, we will no longer be a member of the EEA. The purpose of the repeal bill is to create a functioning statute book. It does not provide the process for the UK to leave the EEA.”
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