This could be the week, as keen observers of Brexit say every week. After two years of cake-ism, of having it and eating it, of being ‘pro-secco but not anti-pasto’, perhaps this week the British Government will finally offer some – not a lot, but some – realistic definition to its preferred post-Brexit end-state.
And the week has started with a bang – a realisation, better late than never, that Brussels won’t offer a bespoke deal. Nothing has changed yet apparently, finally, the penny has dropped. Whether Mrs May has spent the last 24 months expertly ‘boiling frogs’ or stuck in feeble paralysis is neither here nor there. The gravitational pull of the negotiating reality is becoming irresistible.
Underneath all the bluster, one clear way forward is emerging. The UK should stay in the European Economic Area and with it the Single Market – and rejoin EFTA, the European Free Trade Area, of which we were founder members in 1960 before we joined what was then the EEC.
There are three strong cases to be made for the ‘Norway option’ – economic, democratic and strategic – which together point to the best possible exit for the UK.
First the economic. Analysis of the Government’s own figures shows that while every possible Brexit deal comes with a hit to our economy, remaining within the single market would leave the UK public finances £350 million a week better off than the bespoke deal Theresa May has been hoping for and more than half a billion a week better off than a Canada-style free trade agreement.
Next, the democratic. Quite simply, when forced to choose, ‘Norway’ is where the public are. When Global Future presented the public with a fair and reasonable description of the four possible Brexit scenarios, including both the costs and the benefits – the ability to introduce new immigration controls, the opportunity to broker new trade deals, the likely hit to the public finances – the public were absolutely clear: the Norway model was the runaway winner.
That’s no surprise, of course. The result of the Brexit referendum was incredibly close. A solution which involves leaving the EU – no ever-closer union, leaving European institutions like the European Parliament – but retaining close economic ties and the value that they bring looks like a pretty fair reflection of a 52/48 referendum to me.
Indeed, there has always been a strong sense within the UK that we want the economic benefits of trading freely with Europe, but without ever-increasing political ties. That’s exactly where leaving the EU whilst remaining in the EEA would leave us. Outside the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies, no longer part of the EU’s common foreign and security policy, but trading with as little additional regulation and friction as possible.
And as far as the public concerned, I think we can all agree that the one thing that most certainly unites us all – from business to trade unions, civil servants in Whitehall and shop workers in Wigan – is the desire to see Government finally get on with it, end the uncertainty and make clear where we are heading. We could move forward on the Norway option now.
Finally, and perhaps least understood, is the strategic case for choosing the ‘Norway option’.
The four existing members of EFTA, Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland enjoy free trade with the EU – as well as 38 other countries – with a more sovereignty-friendly decision-making mechanism based on unanimity, equal footing with the EU at expert level on decision-making committees, and a ‘right of reservation’ to refuse to take up EU law – Norway for example enacts just 9% of EU legislation. What’s more, not only has EFTA’s head offered the UK two places at the EFTA Court, compared to one each for the smaller nations, but crucially its rulings do not take primacy over domestic courts.
Through such a set of arrangements the UK would gain a much-needed head start in developing free trade arrangements, reclaim ultimate power over our law-making institutions and continue to enjoy influence over EU decision making.
What’s more, UK membership of EFTA would at a stroke transform the bloc, and rewrite the global perception of Brexit Britain. No longer cast out alone, we would be the leader of an agile and revitalised group of nations with real clout and world leading industries. We would regain our seat on the WTO, retain influence in Europe and gain a new position in the world. It would be a free trade area, working as a bloc when in our national interest, going it alone when not. In short, it could just be what we have always wanted.
Finally, the Norway option would give us that most vital national requirement – flexibility. We would be free to move closer or further from the EU as suits our national interest, not forced into bad decisions when our back is against the wall. The Irish border is a case in point. By throwing out the hard Brexiteer dogma – for which by the way there will never be a majority in the country or in parliament – we could begin with a customs arrangement in-line with the EU, with space to diverge if and when a technological solutions arrives, giving us both a solution to a seemingly intractable problem and space to forge our own trade agreements in the future, no unicorns required.
And so, the hour has arrived and it is time to get serious. Let’s hear no more magical thinking and cries of betrayal. What’s needed now is a sober reflection on our negotiating position and the options on the table. That means arguing for a form of Brexit which preserves the best of our relationship with the EU, safeguards the jobs and industries that depend on trading with it and does the least damage to our economy. It means the Norway option, it always has.
Gurnek Bains is the chief executive of Global Future