There’s been a lot more talk of hard and soft Brexits this week – with the Prime Minister promising more Parliamentary debate and retailers warning of price rises and tariffs when the UK leaves the EU.

But a ‘soft Brexit’ – in the sense of membership of the single market outside the EU – is simply not an option. The fact this is not understood illustrates the ignorance that has characterised the whole debate.

graffiti-386495_1280The single market is the core of the EU.  You can’t have one without the other. The single market is what the EU created 25 years ago as a natural progression from the European Economic Community (EEC).

Common to single

The EEC was a ‘common market’ where countries didn’t levy customs duties on each other’s goods and services.  Then in the early 1990s, its members voted to upgrade the common market to the ‘single market’ – championed by Britain incidentally.

This meant moving from tariff-free trading to having a single economic zone with a single rulebook and a single set of standards. It meant replacing what were then 12 sets of national regulations – now 28 – with one set of EU ones.

This had many benefits. It made life simpler for companies who no longer had multiple regulations to deal with. It meant EU citizens enjoyed consistently high standards – for example for the safety of children’s toys or the labelling of medicines.

And it was fairer – everybody playing to the same rules. For a single market to work, you can’t have one member putting up barriers that others don’t. It wouldn’t be single any more. That’s why it was linked to the ‘four freedoms of movement’ – of goods, services, capital and – yes – people.

Rules of the game

In other words, the things that Brexiters hate so much – the UK having to follow EU-wide laws and accept free movement of people – are integral, defining elements of the single market.  Those EU laws “made by unelected bureaucrats” that the Brits have been conditioned to hate are nothing more than the rules of the European trading game.

To say you want to be in the single market without EU law or freedom of movement, is like saying you want to play in the World Cup with a team of 25 and no handball rule.

You can’t have what Theresa May called “the authority of EU law in this country ended for ever” and still observe EU regulations like the rules to control mobile roaming charges. She knows that.


Boris Johnson knows it too. During the Referendum campaign, he said: “The single market is a term of art for the vast empire of EU legislation and regulation …. we should get out of the empire of EU law-making and what we should have instead is access to the single market.’

But that’s not simple either, as Johnson knows – or should now. ‘Access’ to the single market, as opposed to membership, means paying tariffs – 10% on cars for example – and abiding by EU requirements on product standards, the environment and safety.  You can do a bespoke deal as Canada has to soften the terms of trade, but you can’t escape EU standards if you want to sell stuff there. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies observes, any country can have access to the single market. The term is virtually meaningless.

But what about Norway, someone will say. Well, Norway isn’t so much a non-member of the EU as an honorary member. To trade as part of the single market, it accepts the authority of EU regulations and freedom of movement for EU citizens. It just doesn’t have any say in how the rules are made.

Here in Britain, we’ve made our bed and we have to lie in it, no matter how hard. Soft Brexit simply can’t happen. It is a contradiction in terms – an oxymoron – like a straight banana, a flying pig – or increasingly – an honest politician.