Nick Boles is a former Planning Minister and Education Minister, and is MP for Grantham and Stamford.
Let’s play a game. Where are they talking about, and why do they like it?
The first clue comes from Nigel:
“They’re rich, they top the world’s happiness index, they’re allowed to catch their own fish… They don’t pay their money to Brussels… We’re told (they) have to accept all the rules. Oh no they don’t.. They retain the right to veto…”
Boris is up next:
“If we got it right, we could negotiate a generous exit, securing EFTA style access to the Common Market.”
The final clue is offered by Owen:
“This brings us to the only realist option, which is to stay within the EEA Agreement. The EEA is tailor made for this purpose and can be adopted by joining EFTA first.”
What country were Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Owen Paterson talking about? The sovereign kingdom of Norway, of course. And what were they so envious of? Norway’s position outside the European Union but inside the common market of the European Economic Area and the European Free Trade Association.
So when did it become apostasy for Brexiteers to argue that on leaving the EU we should move to a relationship a bit like Norway’s? Why do Brexiteers feel they have to attack Common Market 2.0, when for so long they saw it as a promised land, flowing with milk and honey? (Or maybe aquavit and herring.)
The answer is to be found in the pages of A Place of Greater Safety, a novel about the French Revolution by Hilary Mantel. As the revolution unfolds, the ambitions of its original architects no longer satisfy the younger firebrands. They demand ever greater radicalism and condemn those who advocate compromise to the tumbrils and the tricoteuses.
Yesterday Norway Plus was denounced on these pages by my friend Henry Newman, an eager Brexiteer keen to burnish his revolutionary credentials. It is tantamount to non-voting membership of the EU, he claimed. The reality is quite different. Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein exist entirely outside the EU’s common policies on agriculture, fisheries, justice, home affairs, foreign policy and defence. If we joined them in the EEA, EU law would no longer have ‘direct effect’ and new rules would only apply once Parliament had agreed to incorporate them into British law.
Both Norway and Iceland have refused to implement a whole raft of new Single Market rules over the years: by 2011 Norway had obtained derogations from 55 legal acts and Iceland from 349. The basic rule in the EEA is this: if you really don’t like it, just say “Nei!”
Our contemporary Saint-Just then argued that a Norway Plus relationship isn’t really ‘off the shelf’ – and might be quite tricky to negotiate. But he ignored the fact that the UK is already a signatory of the EEA treaty and has a clear right under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties to retain the benefits of our membership even after we leave the EU. The UK was also a founder member of EFTA and there is no reason to believe that we could not negotiate our accession to this fine organisation (including a temporary derogation from its free trade agreements) by the end of the transition in December 2020. At that point, our future relationship would commence, governed by tried and tested institutions like the EFTA Court, the Surveillance Authority and the EEA Joint Committee, and the Irish backstop would fall away without ever having needed to be activated.
Finally, he warned that renegotiating the Political Declaration to specify a future relationship based on Common Market 2.0 would make us vulnerable to further demands from Brussels. I have news for our young Jacobin. In any version of Brexit we will be subject to further demands from Brussels. Nowhere more so than in the Prime Minister’s current deal, where our desire to escape from the backstop before the 2022 election will turn us into a sitting duck for every EU President and Prime Minister who wants to score an easy win for voters back home.
Membership of Common Market 2.0 is a compromise. Like all compromises, it has upsides and downsides. On free movement and an independent trade policy, it will give us less control than many hoped for, and more slowly than I would ideally like. But, as Nigel, Boris, and Owen once recognised, it also offers us a comfortable halfway house – outside the EU’s political empire-building and inside the common market that the British people voted to join in 1972 and that a previous Conservative government entrenched through the Single Market in 1992. If the Common Market was good enough for Margaret Thatcher, its modern equivalent is good enough for me – and should be good enough for all who call themselves Conservative.