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Expert View

MPs risk getting lost in ‘Norwegian Wood’

by Denis MacShane | 28.11.2018

Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe and was a Labour MP for 18 years.

One of the gentlest Beatles songs is “Norwegian Wood”, and it is now emerging as the favourite of the Conservatives desperate to find a way out of the Brexit nightmare.

The latest were Oliver Letwin, the cerebral right-winger who once tried to give 21st century Toryism some intellectual coherence, and George Freeman, a thoughtful Conservative MP.

On BBC radio they extolled the virtues of the UK becoming a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), which consists of Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein plus all EU member states, and returning to membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) which was where the UK belonged in the Beatles era of the 1960s. EFTA includes the three non-EU EEA members plus Switzerland.

But Letwin, Freeman and other Tory MPs, such as Nick Boles, are selling an EEA/EFTA future that they don’t understand.

The EEA was dreamt up by European Commission president Jacques Delors in the late 1980s as a holding pen for EFTA countries like Austria, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland which, during the Cold War, refused to align fully with NATO nations.

With communism’s end that problem fell away. Norway and Switzerland, however, rejected joining the EU – and in the Swiss case even the EEA. Agricultural protectionism led both to stay out of the EU customs union and both nations have checks for goods at their border.

Norway is the dominant EEA member, with a population 15 times the size of Iceland. Liechtenstein has a population of just 38,000, of whom three quarters are EU nationals. All EEA countries and Switzerland accept freedom of movement. In fact, as a share of the population, the number of Poles in Norway is higher than in the UK.

EEA members accept all EU laws on the single market but have no say in shaping them. Switzerland has spent a quarter of a century in tetchy negotiations with the EU and still does not have full single market access for banking and other financial services – hence the decision of Swiss banks to use London as their base for EU operations.

What’s more, the UK cannot simply join EFTA or the EEA. Re-joining the former looks possible, as the UK is Norway’s biggest trade partner and Oslo does not want to see market disruption.

But EEA membership would have to be negotiated with the other 27 EU countries, and only after we have left the EU and become a third country. The EU27 will insist on freedom of movement, and EU rules and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice being respected. And the UK would have to pay pretty much the same financial contribution as today.  Any of the 27 EU member states could refuse to ratify, or submit to a referendum, the UK’s EEA membership unless specific national trade issues or questions like the Irish border or Gibraltar were addressed.

None of these points have been discussed by the Tory Norwegian Wood brigade like Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles. We would have all the costs and obligations of EU membership with no vote, voice or veto. In Norway or Switzerland this kind of dilemma might have been put to a vote by the people. Why not in the UK?

Edited by Hugo Dixon

Tags: , , , Categories: Brexit

4 Responses to “MPs risk getting lost in ‘Norwegian Wood’”

  • This explains why “Norway” is worse than Remain. Ok. But the political hurdles to Remain are much bigger than to ” Norway”: assuming govt calls 2nd ref, it still needs unanimous approval from the EU to extend Art 50 (big ask), a Remain victory in the referendum (very big gamble – remember Remain was much further ahead than now when 2016 campaign started), and (v probably – ECJ to rule so soon) EU to unanimoisly allow UK to revoke art 50 – any disgruntled member state, or any state with gains from Brexiteer (agencies, jobs, Gibraltar) may say no; and EU will need to be guaranteed reed 2nd ref is definitive…
    By contrast, “Norway” (+CU, + an agriculture deal), like democracy, ia ndeed the worst arrangement – at the exclusion of all others.
    It’s not me saying this: Norwegians and Swiss are overwhelmingly happy with this arrangement, which saves a little money and keeps them out of some EU policies they dislike (fish…). Why should the British not be happy with the same?
    (Ah, Feeedom of Movement! With EU migration turning negative, demographic collapse in Eastern Europe, and the wage gap between Poland and UK narrowing very quickly, this is yesterday’s problem and only a concern for obsessive people like Theresa May: Norway and Switzerland manage labour migration’s impact very well, why should Britain remain inherently incapable of doing it?)

  • We had a key government minister who didn’t understand the importance of the Dover – Calais link, so how can these characters be expected to understand anything which is more complicated?

  • Guglielmo Meardi, the article does indeed explain very cogently why a Norway+ option is worse than Remain, but fails to point out that it would nevertheless be better than any other Brexit option. Just like any form of Brexit, it would destroy our political influence and voice in Europe and leave us subject to rules we have no part in making. But it would avoid the economic destruction that would follow from any other Brexit option.
    Of course, what Norway+ emphasises is the sheer pointlessness of Brexit. The only form of Brexit we can identify that doesn’t destroy our economy is one that fails to achieve any of the purposes that the Brexiteers originally campaigned for, leaving us in a worse position in relation to all of them.
    The only sensible conclusion is that we need to work now to cancel Brexit and ensure we can remain in the EU. Yes, there are obstacles in the way – but most of those apply equally to switching from the deal already agreed by May to a Norway+ deal. We’d still need to extend Article 50 and restart negotiations with the EU and we’d still be subject to the same veto by any EU state that didn’t want that.