“Market access”: don’t leave home without it?

I’ve recently noticed a subtle tactic that effectively allows pro-Brexit politicians to dodge inconvenient truths about their views.

The basic Brexit dilemma is one that I’ve discussed several times on this blog. In a nutshell, it’s this. Those who voted Leave were promised both continued membership of the EU single market (which is vital to our economy), and an end to the reciprocal free movement of people (which right-wing campaigners have long linked to fears about migration). But membership of the single market and its four key freedoms (movement of goods, services, capital and people) are two sides of the same coin. No country, EU or otherwise, has ever managed the feat of keeping one while abandoning the other.

Despite this, during the campaign, the leading lights of Leave were perfectly happy to promise both to different people at different times — even, sometimes, to the same people at the same time. So how did they manage this feat without being exposed?

One answer lies in a clever shift of the terms of the debate. This is almost too subtle to notice at first, but you begin to see it everywhere once it’s been pointed out. Leave campaigners talk about “access” to the single market, but they never define what kind of “access” they are talking about.

There are at least three very different ways in which a country might hope to “access” the EU’s single market.

  • Full membership. This is the gold standard. As an EU member (for now), we not only enjoy tariff-free trade across borders, but we also help to run the market by agreeing common rules with our neighbouring countries. In essence, the entire Union of 500 million people is a single domestic market for British businesses.
  • “Full access”. This is what Brexit campaigners often claim to aspire to, at least until they’re challenged. A country that has “full access” to the single market can trade freely with EU countries in goods (if not necessarily in services), but it has to accept all the rules of the market without having any say on them — including, of course, the free movement of people. Countries like Norway and Switzerland are in this category.
  • “Access”. This is so vague that it could mean anything. Barring some kind of embargo, any country in the world can “access” the single market from the outside, as long as it’s prepared to pay the appropriate tariffs and meet the appropriate standards. This can happen either in a default World Trade Organisation framework, or under some country-specific trade agreement. But this is a very different kettle of fish from the “access” we currently enjoy. Businesses who “access” the market in this way are at a significant competitive disadvantage compared to businesses that are genuinely inside the market — and it’s the easiest thing in the world to configure market rules to squeeze out external competitors.

In debates, pro-Brexit campaigners cleverly shift between these three different meanings in order to sidestep challenges. And this helps them maintain the charade that we can somehow keep the economic benefits of EU membership while ignoring its rules.

In action, the sleight-of-hand looks something like this:

Brexiteer: “People are scared of migration! We must end our EU membership so we can end free movement!”
Challenger: “But there’s a mountain of evidence showing that the vote to leave the EU is already doing severe damage for our economy. Actually quitting will be even worse.”
Brexiteer: “Nonsense! We can have full access to the single market without being a member. Just look at Norway and Switzerland — they do OK, don’t they?”
Challenger: “But Norway and Switzerland both accept free movement and have more migration than we do. And they still pay into the EU budget and accept all its rules without getting a vote on those rules.”
Brexiteer: “Who said anything about Norway and Switzerland? Of course we can still access the single market on our own terms. If Canada can do it, why can’t we?”

The type of “access” under discussion at the end of the conversation is totally different from the type at the beginning. But, nine times out of ten, this manoeuvre gets the Brexiteer off the hook.

Here are some real-life examples of the ambiguity at work:

Of course, no amount of sneaky debating tactics can change the reality. Sooner or later, the Brexit brigade are going to have to come clean about the fact that at least one of their central campaign promises will have to be dropped — and when that happens, many Leave voters will quite rightly complain that that’s not what they signed up for.

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