There seems to be a lot of confusion and misunderstanding over what is meant by a “soft Brexit”. This is my attempt to shed some light on what’s meant by “soft” and “hard” in this context.
“Soft” does not mean “à la carte” – it doesn’t mean we get to pick and choose which bits of the EU to leave and which to take. It does not mean having your cake and eating it, sorry Boris. “Soft” here means “soft landing” – it means that the impact of Brexit would be softened by some means. That’s all. How could it be softened? There are a number of ways, but none of them are possible unless they are compatible with the principles which the EU27 have set out in their negotiating directives for the Article 50 process. So no watering down of the four freedoms, no cherry-picking, no getting something for nothing. In my view, the best bet for a “soft” Brexit would be to agree a transitional arrangement whereby the UK remains within the Single Market and Customs Union, paying into the EU budget, abiding by ECJ rulings, and continuing to apply the four freedoms (including freedom of movement), while it negotiates its new relationship with the EU27 which will look something like Norway’s. That is to say, being part of the Single Market in return for budget payments and accepting freedom of movement. The big downside for the UK will be not having a say in the rules which it will now have to accept. That’s “taking back control” for you…
“Hard” means rejecting a transitional deal and refusing the four freedoms, budget payments, ECJ jurisdiction, so falling out of the EU without an agreement and facing the full disruptive impact of dealing with the EU as an outsider, with only the most basic WTO rules to govern its trading relationship.
In either of these scenarios, Brexit still means Brexit, the UK still becomes a third country – EU parlance for a non-member – the difference being that in a “soft” scenario the UK and EU have agreements in place to govern their relationship to their mutual advantage, in the “hard” scenario they don’t. The “soft” scenario is much better for both parties, the “hard” scenario damaging to both, but far more damaging to the UK than to the EU. Why? Because the UK is much smaller than the EU and so more at risk from disruption, and because the EU has been busy preparing for a hard Brexit since 24 June 2016, whereas the UK… hasn’t.