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Is Brexit really incompatible with the single market? The referendum campaigns revisited

Funnily enough, Brexiteers were much more vague in 2016. 

Jeremy Corbyn has told members of the parliamentary Labour party that the UK cannot stay in the single market after Brexit, the Guardian reports, causing frustration among pro-EU Labour MPs. 

“Labour Brexit fudge” has become so commonplace as a phrase that Tesco will soon be stocking it, but nevertheless the party’s tactical avoidance of Brexit will not last forever. 

In August 2017, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer just gave it a wipe. Labour, he confirmed, would seek to remain inside the single market during a time-limited transition period. 

Responding in a series of tweets, Labour donor John Mills described Starmer’s position as “incompatible” with Labour’s manifesto, adding that it “would betray 4m Labour-supporting Leave voters”.

Yet a former Vote Leave staffer, Oliver Norgrove, had a different perspective. “We argue for things which are utterly achievable in the EEA and make no mention at all of leaving the single market,” he wrote, while urging the public to check the official campaign’s aims. 

The EU referendum question itself - “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” - offers no answers. So what did the campaigns and key campaigners have to say about remaining in the single market?

Vote Leave

The official Brexit campaign infamously claimed that voting to leave the EU would “save £350m a week”. It also promised control of Britain’s borders, controls of immigration, the freedom to strike trade deals, and to “make our own laws”. 

It stated: “There is a free trade zone stretching all the way from Iceland to the Russian border. We will still be part of it after we Vote Leave.” Daniel Hannan, a Tory MEP and one of the faces of Vote Leave, declared: “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market.” Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary, declared in the aftermath of the vote that Britain would retain access to the single market. 

Verdict: This is the “having your cake and eating it” campaign. It’s clear Vote Leave wanted to prioritise trade, but at the same time it would take a master negotiator to deliver the promises on slashing EU regulation and controlling immigration, while staying in the single market, since multiple EU leaders have said the four freedoms - freedom of trade, services, capital and movement - are indivisible.  

Leave.EU

Although today Leave.EU is one of the most vocal opponents of staying in the single market, both Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, influential members of the unofficial Brexit campaign, talked up the “Norway option” and the European Economic Area. However, in February 2016, Farage said explicitly that he did not wish the UK to be part of the single market. Leave.EU’s campaign messaging stressed controlling borders and immigration, and Farage argued that immigration was suppressing wages.  

Verdict: This was the “don’t mention the market” campaign. Leave.EU clearly prioritised controlling immigration over access to the single market, but in the run up to the vote, it played down the implications of its stance. Talk about the Norway model also blurred the picture.

Stronger In

The official Remain campaign made its case almost exclusively on the economic benefits of remaining in the EU, including the freedom to trade, and the consequence of lower prices.

Its website stated: “Being in the single market means we have the freedom to work, travel and study in the EU, creating even more job opportunities for you and your family. If we left Europe, UK businesses would have to pay new tariffs, increasing the cost of trading.”

Verdict: This was the “stay in the single market” campaign, and anyone who came across Remain’s arguments could have little doubt about that. According to Stronger In, the flipside of being in the EU was clearly leaving the single market.

Another Europe Is Possible

The unofficial, left-wing Remain campaign, backed by several trade unions, was lukewarm about the single market. Its opening statement declared that “for all its potential, the EU as it’s currently constituted is run in the interests of multinational corporations for whom it represents a lucrative market”. However, it argued that by staying in the EU, left-wingers had a better chance of reforming the system, and that the breakdown of borders would allow progressives to work across Europe. 

Verdict: This was the “solidarity” campaign, with little defence of the single market. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.