Andrew Smith is a councillor in Westminster and a consultant for Cicero Group. He writes in a personal capacity.
The possibility of indicative votes, giving MPs the option to vote on a number of possible Brexit outcomes to see which one might be able to gain the support of a majority, seems to have energised both Conservative and Labour supporters of a so-called “Norway Plus” model, or Common Market 2.0, This option would keep the UK in the Single Market as a member of the EEA and would additionally include a Customs Union.
Conservative supporters of the idea first proposed it as ‘Norway for Now’ – a temporary safe harbour to help UK business make the complex transition from being a full member of the EU. The plan of the Common Market 2.0 group now seems to be for the Norway option to be the long-term outcome of Brexit.
Supporters of this proposal often suggest that it is a business-friendly outcome and a compromise approach which can unite Leavers and Brexiteers. In reality, a Norway solution would be dangerous for UK business and would leave both Leavers and Remainers dissatisfied.
I wrote on this site in 2017 that a deal which left us in the Single Market for the long term would not be a sustainable option for UK business. Being subject to all current and future EU regulations, but being unable to influence them, might work for economies of Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein, but it would be unsustainable in the long term for a diverse and complex economy like Britain’s. Only those few multinational businesses with the ability to influence Government and MEPs from remaining member states would have any voice at all on regulation impacting on their sector
Mark Carney, the hard Brexiteers, bête noire, has made it clear that the Norway option would be a dangerous one for the UK financial services, leaving Europe’s largest financial centre a sitting duck for European regulators, taking rules but having no formal say in their development.
For the vast majority of those who supported leaving the EU, a Norway option simply wouldn’t be Brexit. As well as leaving the UK subject to Single Market rules it would leave the UK subject to the freedom of movement.
Claims that an emergency break or the unique arrangement enjoyed by Lichtenstein to control EEA migration into a country of 35,000 offer a model that could give the UK meaningful control over migration aren’t realistic. This paper by Open Europe, written before the referendum, provides a detailed analysis of what a Norway option would mean for freedom of movement, and should be required reading for all those contemplating the idea.
For those who supported remaining, rather than being a happy compromise, Norway would be a position of frustration, with the UK bearing most of the responsibilities if EU membership but having very little say in shaping how the EU does things.
The lack of accountability for issues that would affect the day to day life of all British workers and consumers would be even worse than the democratic deficit inherent in our membership of the EU. ‘Vassal state’, the term frequently used by Conservative Brexiters to attack the Prime Minister’s deal, was actually coined by Labour’s Barry Gardiner to attack the idea of the UK remaining in the EEA. He was spot on. For those from the Left or the Right, the idea of an economy as large and complex as the UK’s being subject to rules over which we have no say should be an anathema.
Supporters of the Norway model seem to believe that their solution would provide an answer to the Northern Ireland backstop by remaining aligned to the Single market and adding a Customs union – the plus in Norway plus. Simply bolting on a customs union isn’t as simple as supporters of the idea believe. The UK couldn’t simply join EFTA while remaining in the EU customs union. This would prevent the seamless transition from our current membership.
As Parliament searches for an acceptable outcome to the Brexit standoff, compromise is needed. MPs can’t ignore the decision of the majority of British voters to support leaving the EU, but have also to accept that the idea of an ideologically pure ‘clean’ Brexit is a mirage which would be a huge risk to the UK economy.
Rather than delivering a workable compromise solution, a Norway solution would deliver bad outcome for supporters both of leaving and remaining. If and when MPs do get the chance to vote on a series of Brexit options, Norway Plus needs to be rejected. MPs will need to find better solutions which recognise the need for the UK economy to maintain close relations with the EU as a our largest trading partner.