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The worst option of all. Photo: Håkan Dahlström/Flickr

The European Economic Area is an extension of the EU's dominance and is not to be taken lightly, argues Martin Hall

Yesterday, in perhaps the principal vote in the raft of amendments put before the House of Commons in the last two days, an amendment to keep Britain in the EEA (European Economic Area) post-Brexit was defeated. Some 90 Labour members ignored the whip, which was to abstain; 75 voted to remain in the EEA post-Brexit, while the remainder voted with the government. Despite much trumpeting of Tory rebellions in the corporate media, only 3 Tories voted against the government. Why has this particular amendment caused such division?

The European Economic Area (EEA) is the way in which the Single Market is extended into countries that are not actually members of the European Union. It is therefore an extension of the EU’s hegemony, rather than any sort of ‘EU-lite’. Three of the four countries in EFTA (the European Free Trade Association) are members, with the fourth, Switzerland, instead having a variety of bilateral trade agreements. This latter approach is what Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership have laid out. All members are bound by the ‘Four Freedoms’ of movement relating to capital, people, goods and services and must adopt EU legislation, with some exceptions regarding fishing and agriculture. Moreover, EEA members who are not in the EU have no say over what legislation is proposed, nor upon its ratification.

This means that the reasons why remaining in the Single Market are an impediment to a radical reforming government are equally true in the case of the EEA. In short, the Single Market is a barrier to renationalisation, procurement based on need, an effective industrial policy and it provides the base for the privileging of the needs of capital over labour, enshrining as it does the rights of the former to insert itself into every walk of life.

Instead, the Labour leadership tabled a motion on the 5th of June seeking an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill that intended to force the government to seek a deal with ‘no new impediments to trade’ and that would give the UK ‘full access’ to the Single Market via the sort of trade deal referred to above. It was defeated, as was expected. There are disagreements on the left regarding the efficacy of free trade deals with the EU, but that being said, what is clear is that any deal of that nature would be better than staying in the EEA, as trade would continue as before but without the obstacles to the implementation of policies in the interests of working people that staying in the EEA would create.

Furthermore, the position of the 75 rebels who voted to remain in the EEA shines a hard light on the idea that any of them are for 'remain and reform', as membership of the EEA or Single Market without EU membership means that utopian dreams of turning Europe red via a long march through the institutions of Brussels are reduced to pressing your face up at the windows of centralised European capitalism as it gets on with its business. 

Of course, the vast majority of these MPs have spent the last three years trying to get rid of or undermine Corbyn, but anyone on the left who backs remaining in the EEA or indeed the EU do need to know who their friends are, and what they have in mind, which is to return Labour to the politics of the centre and stop the advance of the left. Every Labour supposed 'grandee' backing the EEA in speeches yesterday talked about how reform of freedom of movement of people might be possible within it. Not one of them mentioned reforming free movement of capital in order to get around restrictions on the use of state aid. They will make concessions to the right, but never to the left. Their desire to remain in the EEA needs to be seen in the context of the Europhile end of the left’s overall aim of reversing Brexit and remaining in the European Union. There is no other logic to it, as it represents the worst option of all.

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