Brexiters can’t hoodwink Oslo into buying ‘Norway Plus’

by Luke Lythgoe | 29.11.2018

Support is growing, particularly among moderate Tory ranks, for a Brexit outcome where we join Norway in the European Economic Area (EEA) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). There are plenty of reasons this won’t work, but one of the biggest hurdles is getting the Norwegians to agree to have us.

Recent comments by the Norwegian prime minister will therefore be music to the ears of so-called “Norway Plus” advocates. “If that is what (the UK) really want, we will find solutions in the future,” Erna Solberg told Reuters.

But that’s clearly Oslo’s condition: the UK has to be serious about EFTA membership. And to believe that involves quite a significant leap of faith.

The architect of the “Norway Plus” Brexit model is Michael Gove’s mate Nick Boles. But until a few days ago he was pushing a different idea, the “Norway For Now” model. This involved temporarily joining EFTA, giving us access to the EU’s single market while we negotiated a new deal with the EU.

Only when this idea went up in flames – largely because the Norwegians were unhappy with the UK using its club as a Brexit layover – did Boles switch to the “Norway Plus” model, which says we would stay in EFTA permanently. But can Oslo trust that? Or is “Norway Plus” really just “Norway Forever… For Now”. Remember, Boles needs to win over hardcore Brexiters in the ERG and the DUP – neither of whom want to end up with Norway’s arrangement permanently.

Then there’s the matter of Norway being able to rely on whoever ends up running the UK after the Brexit dust settles (the bookies’ favourites are currently Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab). You can be sure that many hard-Brexit supporters of “Norway For Now” and then “Norway Plus” have been eyeing Article 127 in the EFTA treaty – which allows any EFTA member to leave simply by giving “at least twelve months’ notice in writing”. This is a much less stringent alternative to the EU’s Article 50, which has seen the UK government tied up in knots.

Brexiters have displayed an enthusiastic readiness to tear up all sorts of international agreements during this Brexit process. Whether that’s Johnson demanding the UK rip up the Irish border backstop agreement that he, as foreign secretary, signed up to last year. Or Brextremists like Owen Paterson and Kate Hoey demanding the UK jettison the Good Friday Agreement because it doesn’t suit their political aims.

Hardliners in the ERG aren’t advocating a Norway-style option yet, but if they ever do then alarm bells will start ringing loudly in Oslo. On the other hand, the fact that they don’t back it now suggests they may try to tear it up if they do end up running the government in the future.

Of course it’s not just Norway that will be suspicious of this plan. The other 27 EU countries will have to agree to it too. They will no doubt try to insert an insurance policy into any deal that keeps the Irish border open whatever happens – much like the “backstop” in May’s current deal. And if that happens, “Norway Plus” (or whatever it’s being called by then) is unlikely to get the backing of hard Brexiters. It’ll just be more time wasted on an option which can’t win majority support.

But it needn’t get that far. Norway and the other EEA/EFTA members are understandably wary of upending their own arrangements, perhaps on false promises, even if it does ensure “an orderly deal that doesn’t disrupt economic affairs”, as Solberg put it. Fortunately, there is another, more viable, Brexit outcome that delivers this too – a People’s Vote.

Edited by Hugo Dixon