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LONDON – Every day that goes by throws up another barrier that makes Brexit look dumb: This week it was the news that Britain’s insistence on leaving both the Single Market and the Customs Union could – unthinkably – destroy the Irish peace process.
The government of Ireland wants its post-EU border with the UK to be the Irish Sea, a move that would enfold Northern Ireland inside a customs barrier controlled by Ireland, while preserving the “soft border” between the Irish south and British North.
That plan, of course, will enrage the loyalist community in Northern Ireland, who will see it as Irish reunification by the back door – Northern Ireland would be inside an Irish government barrier encircling all of Ireland.
The alternative, to reinstate the barrier along the Northern Irish border, will enrage the republican community in the North by re-dividing Ireland. And that, perhaps, could reignite the IRA’s terrorist struggle to unite Eire, which officially ended in 2011. The Troubles killed 3,500 people before the peace became permanent.
That’s how insane Brexit could be.
But there is one little-talked about option that could satisfy the Brexiteers’ desire to leave, the Remainers’ desire to stay, and not get anyone killed.
Britain could join EFTA, the European Free Trade Agreement.
So far, EFTA has mostly been derided as “the Swiss option.” Switzerland, famously, is not a member of the EU or the European Economic Area (EEA) but maintains trade ties via its membership of EFTA. The other EFTA countries are Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein. They form the so-called Northern “super-triangle”:
EFTA is a member of the EEA, which copies over EU rules to any country that wants to trade with the EU without the years-long hassle of actually acquiring full EU membership.
Separately, EFTA allows Switzerland to conduct so-called “bilateral” trade deals with the EU while maintaining its nominal independence from both the EU and the EEA.
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It also ticks several other crucial boxes for Leavers:
EFTA members are not subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. They appeal instead to the EFTA Court which deals with EU law, but is technically independent of the EU. It’s also smaller, faster, and less bureaucratic – the EFTA Court has only three judges and the EFTA Secretariat has only about 100 employees. Switzerland only changes its policies to adopt EU law after a referendum. EFTA members have more control over their own immigration policies. Switzerland voted in 2014 to restrict EU immigration. Then, in 2016, the government relaxed that law to adopt an EU-style freedom of movement policy but with employment preferences for Swiss workers. EFTA allows Prime Minister Theresa May to fulfill her promise of keeping Britain “in Europe” but not in the EU. May has never explicitly rejected EFTA. EFTA would be a “uniquely British” solution to Brexit because – and everyone forgets this – Britain was a founding member of EFTA in 1960. The UK formally left EFTA in 1973 when it joined the EU.
For both Leavers and Remainers, EFTA is the most “out” you can be while still keeping your sovereignty, getting the economic benefits of a soft Brexit, and staying outside both the EU and the EEA.
One final thought: The prime minister is on her annual holiday right now… in Switzerland.