Continued conflation of membership of and access to the single market is lazy and misleading

Continued conflation of membership of and access to the single market is lazy and misleading

Yesterday saw the publication of new research by NatCen Social Research on public opinions towards a range of possible features of a post-Brexit EU-UK relationship. The headline results from the study were that 70% of people wanted Britain to be able to limit EU migration, while 90% were in favour of a mutual free trading relationship between Britain and the EU.

If it did come to a crunch decision between the UK being able to limit EU migration and British firms being able to sell goods and services freely in the EU, 49% would be in favour of accepting free movement in exchange for free trade, while 51% would not.

What the survey did not make any mention of was the EU’s single market. Indeed, Professor John Curtice, senior research fellow at NatCen, was at pains to stress how the survey deliberately avoided using terms like “single market”, “customs union” and “passporting” to avoid technical terms that not all voters would necessarily understand in the same way.

Unfortunately, the media coverage of the survey has not been so careful. “Voters overwhelmingly want Britain to remain in the EU single market after Brexit,” announced The Guardian. “Survey shows 90% back single market,” reported Bloomberg.

“More than nine in 10 people wanted Britain to have access to the European single market”, declared the FT. As opposed to the other 10% who wanted a full-on embargo and the complete severing of all economic links with the EU?

To be fair to the press, NatCen’s press team was equally guilty, titling their press release “Voters want UK to stay in the EU single market but be able to control immigration”, and leading with “Almost everyone (90%) supports remaining part of the European single market, regardless of how they voted in the EU Referendum” – despite the warnings of their colleague, Professor Curtice.

This line of reporting appears even more egregious in light of the specific wording of the issue about which participants were asked to indicate their opinion, namely: “Allowing companies based in the EU to sell goods and services freely in Britain in return for allowing British companies to sell goods and services freely in the EU”.

To jump from this most innocuously-worded statement about mutual business operations which, unsurprisingly, hardly anyone found themselves able to disagree with, to a full-blown endorsement of the EU’s single market truly is a leap of olympic – or perhaps should I say titanic – proportions.

At the heart of the problem is the persistent, and arguably deliberate, conflation of membership of the single market and access to the single market, which has been promiscuously bandied about since the early days of the referendum campaign by those sympathetic to the Remain cause.

As Douglas Carswell explained several months ago on BrexitCentral, the two could not be more different. Barring extreme sanctions or a total trade embargo, every country in the world has “access” to the single market, regardless of whether it has full membership of the single market or not.

The journalists and politicians who wilfully use the two interchangeably are clearly well-informed enough to know the difference. They do the public – and themselves – a great disservice by failing to acknowledge it.

The assumption that the UK will inevitably face a dichotomy between continuing free trade or controlling free movement is a curious one as it presupposes the outcome of the negotiations before they have even begun. Both sides were clear during the referendum campaign that a vote to Leave was a vote to leave the single market, so this will necessarily induce a change in the way the UK accesses the European market.

However, leaving the single market does not preclude the continuation of close economic ties between Britain and the EU, and for all the EU’s posturing during the build-up to Brexit, the EU’s leaders are as aware of the huge economic advantages they gain from their businesses being able to operate freely in the UK as the other way round.

It may suit Remainers to try to perpetuate this confusion about “access to the single market” in the hope of reversing the referendum result in all but name, but ultimately all it does is demean the quality of the debate and detract from proper discussion about what a future UK-EU relationship will actually look like.

There are plenty of contentious issues to argue about over Brexit, but this really shouldn’t be one of them.