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Fact Check: is being in the single market dependent on membership of the EU?

(opens in a new window)Gavin Barrett, (opens in a new window)University College Dublin

The single market is dependent on membership of the EU. What we’ve said all along is that we want a tariff free trade access to the European market and a partnership with Europe in the future.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (opens in a new window)speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on July 23.

As a description of the law, Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion is wrong, and has been so for almost a quarter of a century.

The (opens in a new window)European Economic Area Treaty (EEA) entered into force in 1994. This provides full membership of the single market for countries which are not members of the European Union. At present, these are Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland. Switzerland also has access to some aspects of the single market under a series of treaties. In the current Brexit negotiations, if the UK expresses a wish to exit the EU but remain in the EEA – or reach a separate similar arrangement – it is clear that this would be facilitated and welcomed by the 27 remaining EU states.

Since it would clearly be impossible to complete the huge task of negotiating permanent trading arrangements between the UK and the EU by mid-2019, when Article 50 negotiations on the UK’s exit will end unless there is unanimous agreement to extend them, a transition agreement needs to be reached.

The cabinet is reportedly (opens in a new window)united on the need for such an arrangement. This may well involve continued temporary large-scale membership of the single market, without EU membership.

The prime minister, Theresa May, has signalled there will be (opens in a new window)no “cliff edge” for businesses, which is likely to mean no abrupt exit from the single market. Various UK government “red lines” concerning immediately restricting immigration and the role of the EU Court of Justice appear to have softened to allow at least temporary continuity after Brexit. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, is (opens in a new window)reportedly seeking a transition period of at least two years during which the UK would have an as yet undefined but very close associate relationship with both the single market and the customs union.

Corbyn, who later in the same interview said EU membership and single market access were “inextricably linked”, perhaps deserves credit for understanding that staying in the single market implies adhering to the EU’s four freedoms – of goods, people, services and capital. His Brexit-requires-single-market-exit approach is consistent with (opens in a new window)with his personal opposition to what he calls “whole-scale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions” and his endorsement of “tariff-free trade access to the European market”.

His approach involves dubious assumptions, however. It is not clear all Brexit voters opposed the single market. In blaming deteriorating working conditions on migration from central Europe, Corbyn takes no account of the employment-boosting (opens in a new window)effects of the single market. His faith in the ability of tariff-free trade to safeguard British prosperity also seems unconvincing: the economic success of the EU’s single market has involved many policies that go well beyond the abolition of tariffs across the bloc.


Corbyn’s assertion that single market access depends on EU membership is factually incorrect. His Brexit-requires-single-market-exit philosophy also involves several dubious assumptions.


Billy Melo Araujo, Law Lecturer, University of Belfast

This review is factually correct. However, being in the single market as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) does differ from full EU membership. For example, it shouldn’t be overlooked that in addition to complying with EU rules on free movement, EEA members must also comply with EU legislation regulating the internal market – but are not subject to common agricultural policy and common fisheries policy. They must pay budget contributions and are subject to the jurisdiction of the European Free Trade Association Court.

It’s also worth pointing out that being in the single market does not mean being part of the customs union. This means that if the UK were to remain in the single market as an EEA member after Brexit, it would still be able to conduct its own trade policy, including the power to negotiate its own trade agreements.

The Conversation is checking claims made by public figures and prominent in public debates. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert then reviews an anonymous copy of the article. Please get in touch if you spot a claim you would like us to check by emailing us at uk-factcheck@theconversation.com. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

(opens in a new window)Gavin Barrett, Professor of Law, Jean Monnet Professor of European Constitutional and Economic Law, (opens in a new window)University College Dublin

This article was originally published on (opens in a new window)The Conversation. Read the (opens in a new window)original article.The Conversation