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9 January 2019

Has parliament moved the UK towards joining the EEA’s European Free Trade Association?

There is a lot of overclaiming about what Yvette Cooper’s amendment will do from both sides of the argument. 

By Stephen Bush

Breathe easy? Parliament narrowly voted for Yvette Cooper’s amendment yesterday in a measure of legislative opposition to no deal. Now, in the event of a no-deal exit, ministers will not be able to use revenue-raising powers without recourse to parliament first, which will have the opportunity to prevent no deal at that.

There is a lot of overclaiming about what the amendment does on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, as Cooper herself rightly acknowledged in the House yesterday, her amendment hasn’t stopped no deal – it has simply given parliament another opportunity to do so later down the line.

On the other, I think talk of it being an irresponsible act on Cooper’s part goes too far. Yes, it means that in the event that the United Kingdom does leave the European Union without a deal, ministers will have less autonomy. Practically speaking, in that scenario, parliament is not going to block fire-fighting efforts and will be in any case be sitting round the clock to resolve the crisis.

The bigger question is whether we are actually any closer to preventing no deal – and on that matter the prognosis is less good. As I explain in greater detail here, the majority yesterday was dependent on a number of parliamentary factions, who can’t be relied upon in a vote on any of the concrete alternatives. (It was also reliant on the deliberate abstention of the majority of Labour’s committed Brexiteers and of a handful of Labour Remainers in very strongly Leave areas.) So we are still a long way off both a parliamentary majority for a second referendum and a long way off a parliamentary majority for Theresa May’s deal.

But we might have taken another major step towards joining the European Economic Area’s European Free Trade Association pillar. In a measure of the unusual times we are in, George Eustice (a serving minister) has called on May to embrace the EEA-Efta pillar as a fallback option should her deal fail to pass. It is turning out to be quite a week for the EEA: its supporters in parliament now range from a former director of the campaign to take Britain into the Euro in the shape of Labour’s Lucy Powell and a former Ukip MEP candidate in Eustice.

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But even that option – the most likely to pass by any measure – requires the vocal minority of supporters of a second referendum to eat their words, and as it stands, too many in parliament still believes that their interests are best served by waiting for someone else to blink.

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