George Eustice is MP for Camborne, Redruth & Hayle, and is a former Minister of State at DEFRA.
The actions of Parliament last week were a blow to the credibility of our democracy. We have signalled to the world that we are too scared to leave the EU without its permission, and we are about to send our Prime Minister to Brussels on her hands and knees to beg for an extension.
However, for those like me who voted to leave without a deal if necessary, it is no good sobbing over the fact that we lost a line-out and that those who want to thwart the referendum result are running away with the ball. We need to regroup and get back in the game.
We have been arguing about Brexit solidly for over three years now and our system cannot take another two years of this, especially if there is a long extension to article 50. What is needed now is a way to secure early closure on this debate and to expedite our departure from the EU.
There is a simpler and swifter way to get out of the EU. We should rely on our existing legal rights and obligations as a signatory to the EEA. The UK is a party to that agreement in its own right, and the Government took a conscious decision last year not to give twelve months notice to leave the EEA, as is required under article 127 of that agreement.
The first step would be to agree a stand-still arrangement with the EU, along the lines of the “Malthouse 2” compromise for a transitional period of nine months, during which we would give an undertaking to dynamically align all of our regulations, so that there would be no need for the EU to put in place border checks.
We would then immediately apply to join the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement. Full EFTA membership would take six to nine months to complete, but joining the necessary surveillance and court agreements to make the EEA operable could be agreed within three months. The standstill agreement on regulatory alignment would become a bridge to somewhere (i.e: EFTA) rather than an open-ended continuation of this exhausting debate.
This is definitely not “Norway plus” nor “Common Market 2.0”, both of which concede far too much. If you internalise all the EU’s demands, you are no closer to a solution. The only way to cut the Gordian knot is to simply return to EFTA, and exercise our existing legal rights where there is no Customs Union nor backstop.
The benefits of a simple EFTA approach are that we can settle this debate now rather than condemn our country to years more argument about Brexit. It removes the backstop, since article 127 of the EEA means we already have an existing legal right to terminate our membership of it with 12 months notice. We would avoid having to wade through the treacle of trying to negotiate a “future partnership” with the EU, and instead fall back on the provisions of an existing treaty to which we are already a party. We would be out of the Customs Union and have an independent trade policy, but part of a ready-made comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU. We would have an independent agriculture and fisheries policy. There would be no need for a two year “implementation period”. Finally, it delivers on the referendum result, since the 1972 European Communities Act would be repealed on time.
But, I hear you say, won’t it take too long to join the EEA? We are not joining the EEA: we just never left it. We are a signatory and never gave notice to quit. The Agreement could be made operable on an emergency basis, via recourse to domestic institutions. To make the agreement operable on a sustainable basis, all we need to do is join the EFTA pillar. This process could be concluded in a matter of months.
Don’t we need the permission of the EU to do this? No. We would only need the agreement of the EFTA states in order to join the EFTA pillar and, under international law, that could not be unreasonably withheld. The EU is legally obliged to recognise our existing EEA rights under the Vienna Convention.
But hasn’t Norway said that it doesn’t want us to join? Norway has been reluctant to get involved in the current brawl between the EU and the UK. It is also reluctant to see us trample over EFTA on the way to a Canada-style agreement. However, if we resolved that we were committed to EFTA for the long-term and the EEA at least for the foreseeable future, that’s a different matter.
But what about free movement? The EEA agreement generally requires free movement for work. However, Liechtenstein has a derogation from that. Some say that we are “too big” to be able to get any derogation – as opposed to being “too small”, which is usually why our Government talks itself into assuming that we can’t ask for what we want. However, why not try? If we were unhappy, we would always have the option to step back from the EEA with 12 months notice and revert to a new arrangement within the EFTA framework.
What about the Irish border? There are no problems on the border between Sweden and Norway. There are 60 border crossings, and only 14 of them actually have any physical infrastructure. Scotch Whisky is our most successful export around the world, but producers already have to deal with different duty rates in different national markets despite the existence of the Customs Union, and they have devised simple methods to allow this to happen.
Won’t we still have to make a financial contribution? Yes, but it would be far smaller. The net contribution to the EU budget would fall to around zero. We would contribute to the programmes we participate in, possibly including Erasmus for student exchanges, Horizon for science cooperation and the European Space Programme. We would also make a smaller contribution towards administrative costs.
Won’t we just be a rule taker? No. The EEA Agreement provides for multiple channels of influence, some of which are unique to its non-EU members. In reality, the UK does not secure significant influence through the way it exercises its votes in a QMV voting system within the EU. It has always exercised influence through its technical and scientific expertise, and that could continue.
It was actually the UK that invented EFTA in 1959 at a time when there was a cross-party consensus that the political and democratic costs of EEC membership were unacceptably high. We initially built a coalition of seven countries including Austria, Sweden and Portugal. Perhaps EFTA is not really the “Norway option” after all, but the red, white and blue Brexit that the Prime Minister once talked about.