It is axiomatic in the Brexit debate that those worried about amputating the UK from Europe have little traction with devout Brexit believers. But again and again on Sunday morning arises a voice from the heartland of anti-European journalism to warn that the hard and brutal Brexit proposed by Theresa May means Britain is on the brink of disaster.     

Christopher Booker, the high priest of anti-European journalism, is increasingly strident in his Sunday Telegraph columns. It is impossible to underplay his role as one of the founding fathers of organised anti-European isolationism. In the 1990s his book The Great Deception. Can the European Union Survive? and a decade later his book The Castle of Lies. Why Britain Must Get Out of Europe were the bible of the post-Thatcher generation of Conservative anti-Europeans like Bill Cash, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.      

Listening to William Hague or David Cameron denigrating Europe in the long Tory decade of opposition 2000-2010 was like hearing an audio tape of Booker’s weekly sermons against the EU from his Sunday Telegraph page. Now like Saul becoming Paul on the road to Damascus or perhaps the road out of Europe, Booker is denouncing with increasing vigour the maximalist Ukip version of Brexit which means leaving the single market, the customs union, or rejecting any arbitration or commercial court role for the European Court of Justice.

Booker cites the UK chemical industry and pharmaceutical exports. Outside the single market and customs union these products lose their “authorisations” which allow access to firms in the EU 27. Negotiating replacements “would be so complex that it could take years.” The same is true for food exports and flying low-cost airlines  – and even the UK’s £3.5bn horseracing industry which relies freedom movement of horses to EU to countries such as Ireland and France. 

May’s threat to walk out of talks is “terrifying” because, “by bringing our trade with Europe crashing to a halt, this would be as catastrophic an act of national self-harm as the world has ever seen.”

Repeatedly in his Sunday Telegraph columns Booker has urged the UK go for European Economic Area (EEA) status – what Norway has. This means a political Brexit but not an economic and trade rupture.       

Unfortunately, British politicians and journalists have lost all intellectual muscle on trade issues as trade has had little political salience or been of interest to universities or the media in the 45 years since we decided to enter the EU. A common, let alone, a single market can only work is if it operates with one unified policy on trade, quotas, tariffs, duties, rules of origin and kite-marks.

Booker, 80 this year, is old enough to know this. His argument for EEA membership rather than full Brexit economic amputation deserves a wider hearing before it is too late.

by Denis MacShane | 06.02.2017

Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and author of Brexit: How Britain Left Europe (IB Tauris). He is a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners, Brussels

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