The EEA: an imperfect but easy way to "take back control"

Joining the EEA would allow us to take back a reasonable amount of control while still enjoying many of the benefits of the EU, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

How much control over its own laws does a country need to really be a country, rather than a subsidiary of another country? Put another way, what makes a nation? The obvious answer is sovereignty. But how much sovereignty do you need? There's no such thing as 100% self-determination. Since the idea of nationhood got going (the defining moment in the development of the nation state is generally considered to be the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648) there have always been trade deals, customs deals and alliances between countries.

Today, countless bodies get either a formal or firmly advisory say over what sovereign nations get to do. As Mark Mazower puts it in his (must-read) book Governing the World: The History of an Idea, "the unwary student soon finds himself stumbling through a landscape of obscure acronyms that stretch endlessly into the bureaucratic haze". Think military alliances (Nato and WEU), intergovernmental organisations (WTO and GATT), post-imperial bodies (the Commonwealth), "quasi-polities" (the EU) and endless summit conferences (G-20). All demand a say in something and, Brexit aside, increasingly get it (see my interview with Dambisa Moyo). So the question here (one that the last couple of hundred years of European history has been an attempt to answer) is about the tensions between global and national actors: how much power over its own affairs can a nation give up before it starts to feel a little less nation-like than either its population or its leaders fancy?

And so we come to Brexit. For the UK, being part of an EU that was set to keep expanding its remit started to look like a step too far. But look at it from this point of view and the way out doesn't look as complicated as most seem determined to make it. The Leave slogans suggested that the UK electorate wanted to "take back control". I suspect they'd be entirely happy to "take back a reasonable amount of control". Before the referendum in 2016, we suggested that joining the European Economic Area (EEA) would work fairly nicely for this. It still would. We'd get out of the customs union (and get to make our own trade deals); we'd pay much less into the EU; we wouldn't have to be bothered with the nonsenses of the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies; we'd be much less bound to the rulings of the European Court of Justice; we'd know we were able to use "safeguard measures" on immigration; and we'd only have to take on around 30% of EU regulations (based on Norway's experience).

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It's not perfect but it is easy; it can be treated as a stepping stone if it doesn't work out; and, all in, it probably gives us back enough control to feel we have more power over our future than Mazower's "bureaucratic haze" does. It deserves rather more attention from Theresa May's government than it is getting.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.