Former minister Stephen Hammond calls for EFTA option after Brexit, saying "powerful authorities" back the move

 
Catherine Neilan
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Hammond says the UK has the backing of "powerful authorities" to join EFTA after Brexit (Source: Getty)

Former minister Stephen Hammond today made a passionate case for the UK joining the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA) , saying it was a "flexible" option for post-Brexit trade.

The former transport minister and party vice chairman led a debate this morning in which he positioned EFTA as a "long-term solution" that could address concerns about border issues and the economy, while also respecting the result of the referendum.

Hammond said: "It is abundantly clear to me that there is no model which will satisfy all sections of the British public... but this approach would fulfil the result of the referendum, satisfy a large - I would say overwhelming majority of the British public and perhaps importantly, this House of Commons. It would go a long way to healing the divisions that were there.

"EFTA is not... a universal panacea, neither does it have all the benefits of Single Market and customs union. But Britain's... position post-Brexit would be, I believe, improved by joining EFTA."

Some MPs questioned whether EFTA could be viable given that some, such as Norwegian ambassador Erna Solberg, have indicated that it is not something current members would approve of. The other members are Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

But Hammond dismissed this, telling the Westminster Hall "The indications I've had from really quite powerful authorities are that we would be welcome to EFTA".

Hammond was supported by many MPs who have been vocal Remain campaigners, including Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna, Antoinette Sandbach and Nicky Morgan. The idea appears to have the backing of 10 Tory MPs in total - enough to defeat the government on the matter, assuming Labour votes en masse.

However Brexiter Peter Bone challenged Hammond, saying: "It seems to me what the British people voted for was to end free movement, to make our own laws in our own country, judged by our own judges.

"What the government is doing is saying 'hang on, we are the fifth biggest economy in the world'... We want to make a bespoke deal and from that point of view, how can people object?

"I would hope the whole of the House would get behind the government in achieving what must be in the British interest - a bespoke deal that has a special relationship with EU at the end of it. I would urge my colleagues to stop carping at the Prime Minister, get behind her, don't vote against the government, support it, argue your case and let the government take us out of the European Union in the best possible way in 413 days."

Almost at the same time, Oxford academic and chair of the Regulatory Policy Institute George Yarrow told the Brexit committee that the EEA - which unites the European Union with EFTA members excluding Switzerland in an internal market - was the best option from "a simple expediency argument".

"We are there already - we don't have to leave," he told MPs. "We really need to get back more fundamental question of the economy and the risks the economy faces at the moment - these are trivial issues."

Professor Carl Baudenbacher, president of the EFTA court, said having the UK join would make the states "more powerful... and so from my perspective it would be an interesting move."

He also noted that "docking", which was proposed to EFTA member Switzerland five years ago to avoid certain conditions of being in the EEA, had been discussed with reference to the UK.

"I cannot say [Brussels] are encouraging it, but the sheer fact that EU people are thinking about keeping Britain in Single Market by way of using these EFTA institutions indicates to me that they implied this," he said. "They must be aware that full fledged freedom of movement must be for Britain a political difficulty."

He added that membership of EFTA would require four votes - the current members - as it is outside the EU's remit.

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