Nick Boles is a former Planning Minister and Education Minister, and is MP for Grantham and Stamford.
There is growing support in Parliament for the idea that after Brexit the UK should move to a position a bit like Norway’s or Iceland’s – inside the common market of the European Economic Area (EEA) and the European Free Trade Association (Efta) with some kind of customs arrangement that preserves frictionless trade. Just in the last few days Mark Hendrick, Labour MP for Preston, Paul Masterton, Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire, and Jonathan Djanogly, Conservative MP for Huntingdon, joined the ranks of those declaring their backing for a version of the plan.
As the idea has gathered momentum, so it has also attracted the attention of opponents. An unholy alliance of hardline Brexiters who want to crash out of the European Union with “no deal” and hardline Remainers who want to use a second referendum to overturn the result of the first has been born. One MP linked to the People’s Vote campaign recently told a Times journalist: “We have to kill Norway Plus”. I suppose we should be flattered that they are taking the idea so seriously.
The Norway Plus plan is not perfect. It is a compromise. It has downsides as well as benefits. But people should judge it based on the facts not on misleading claims put about by its opponents.
Some have claimed that Norway Plus would leave the UK as a pure ‘rule taker’. This is not true. Most EU rules would not apply to us at all as we would be outside the common agriculture, fisheries, justice and home affairs policies. Furthermore, as a member of the EEA, the UK would have a right to be consulted on proposed new Single Market rules. UK representatives would take part sit on the policy-shaping committees that draw up proposals for new Single Market legislation. In the EEA, EU law would no longer take effect automatically so the UK would have the power to delay the incorporation of laws we did not like, contest the Single Market relevance of such laws, negotiate derogations and in extreme cases refuse to incorporate Single Market legislation into UK law. All these options have been used by the existing EEA/Efta states. Under Norway Plus we would be under the jurisdiction of the Efta court instead of the European Court of Justice. We can expect to be able to negotiate the appointment of at least one British judge to the court.
Freedom of movement
Some have claimed that Norway Plus leaves the UK in the same position on free movement as we currently have inside the EU. This is not true. Free movement applies to members of EEA/Efta. But Article 112 of the EEA Agreement gives them the right to pull an emergency brake on free movement if events give rise to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature”. We do not know exactly in what circumstances we could take advantage of this provision, or what it would deliver. But it is the very thing that David Cameron sought during his renegotiation of the terms of our EU membership and the EU refused. So it clearly has some legal force. From 2020, after the UK has required all EEA nationals currently living in the UK to register with the Home Office, the Government will be able to identify and remove new EEA migrants who do not find work after three months. This is something we could do as a member of the EU but successive governments have failed to grapple with the administrative reforms required to make it effective.
Some have claimed that as a member of EEA/Efta we would pay about as much to the EU as we currently do. This is not true. According to the Norwegian Mission to the EU, Norway pays approximately £800 million a year in costs arising from its membership of the EEA. This amounts to £152 for each Norwegian citizen. The UK currently pays the EU £13 billion a year gross which amounts to approximately £220 for each British citizen.
£352 million of Norway’s £800 million total contribution relates to grants that Norway makes to European states via the EEA Grants Scheme. While the UK would be expected to make a contribution to this scheme, the level of contribution would reflect our GDP per capita which at $39,000 is not much more than half that of Norway’s at $76,000. So the UK could expect financial contributions in relation to membership of the EEA and Efta to be substantially less than our contributions to the EU.
Some have claimed that signing up to Norway Plus would make no difference to the backstop. This is not true. While we would certainly need to sign up to the legal provisions relating to the backstop in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, joining Efta, moving into the Efta pillar of the EEA, and agreeing a customs arrangement that preserves frictionless trade are all arrangements that can be negotiated and implemented before the end of the transition in December 2020. So the backstop would never need to be activated. Last week, Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit representative, said, “If (Theresa May) is looking for a closer relationship with the EU to avoid the use of this backstop there will be no obstacle.”
Opposition in Norway or EU
Some have claimed that Norway is opposed to British membership of EEA/Efta. This is not true. A recent headline in Norway’s Nationen newspaper read “Solberg sier britene er velhomne i EFTA.” In the piece, Erna Solberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister, confirmed “if that is what they [UK] really want then we will find a solution in the future.” We would need to negotiate a derogation to the Efta Convention so we could be part of a customs arrangement with the EU. But this is something that could be negotiated by December 2020 as part of our Efta accession.
Others have claimed that the EU would not want the UK to join Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein in the Efta pillar of the EEA. This is also not true. Michel Barnier has repeatedly offered Norway Plus as the only Brexit deal that guarantees ‘frictionless trade’. It may be that some people in the European Commission, and some politicians in Norway and elsewhere, would prefer to create a new EEA pillar for the UK. But what matters is what the leader of Norway’s government and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator think, and they are clear: the UK would be welcome to join Norway in the EEA and Efta.
As MPs grapple with difficult choices about the Brexit deal, they should be in no doubt: Norway Plus is real, it is workable and it would deliver significantly more control over our money, our borders and our laws than we currently have as members of the EU.