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Sunday, January 21, 2018

CBI adds to pressure on the single market

Any illusion that Theresa May might wish to conjure up that she has the support of business in her pursuit of a hard Brexit has been quickly dissipated this weekend with reports of a forthcoming speech by Carolyn Fairbairn, who is head of the CBI employers’ organisation, suggesting that Britain should stay in a customs union with the EU long after Brexit, even if that means that the UK could not strike its own trade deals with third countries:

In a challenge to Eurosceptic cabinet ministers, Ms Fairbairn will argue that Britain should remain in a customs union with the EU until there is proof that new trade deals with the US and other countries will outweigh a potential loss of business with the bloc.

She will also say that retaining a customs union with the EU would “go a long way towards solving the border problem in Ireland”, arguing that it is part of a “practical, real-world answer” to the problems thrown up by Brexit.

“Remaining a member of a customs union for as long as it serves us to do so is consistent with the result of the [Brexit] referendum and would be good for EU firms too,” Ms Fairbairn will say in a speech at Warwick university.

The mantra that we can stay in the single market whilst leaving the EU has become the focus of disagreement for Brexiteers and Remainers alike. Even those who do not want us to leave the EU have argued that remaining part of the single market is a compromise, which squares the circle of what is good for the UK with the expressed wish of the British people to have nothing more to do with our European neighbours.

On the other side of the argument we have the unlikely pairing of Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, who have stated that it is not possible to both leave the EU and remain in the single market. To an extent they are right. The choice is actually very much a black and white one.

If we are going to remain a member of the single market, paying into EU coffers so as to continue to have full access to financial markets, complete with free movement of goods, services and labour, then why leave the EU in the first place? At least by staying put we would have a say on the rules we are signing up to.

The real debate is not about some grubby compromise over the single market, but whether we want to remain a meaningful member of a European Union, which forms our biggest overseas market, has brought thousands of jobs to these shores and has effectively contributed to over seventy years of peace on the continent.

That is a choice that should be put to the British people once a deal has been struck for our exit. The final decision must rest with the electorate but it should be an informed choice with clear options, not the wishy-washy undefined future we voted on back in 2016.
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