Victorious opposition campaigns offer small targets. Margaret Thatcher’s manifesto in 1979 was brief. So was Tony Blair’s in 1997. Though not a political party, Vote Leave presented itself as one, making a series of policy offers – and it certainly saw itself as a plucky opposition taking on a mighty governing establishment. This is why it didn’t single out any of the post-Brexit options for support – the Norwegian option, the Swiss option, the Turkish option, the bespoke option, or any of the other options that many Eurosceptics delight in exploring, sometimes in mind-numbing detail.
In doing so, it avoided two dangers, both probably fatal. The first was the Remain campaign shelling and strafing Leave’s favoured option until there was nothing left of it. The second – and probably more dangerous – was the Leave coalition itself falling out over one. The psychology of Euroscepticism is fissiparous. Were it not, Vote Leave and Leave EU would have avoided the mother of all designation contests – one that came close to rendering the fragile pro-Brexit coalition altogether. Championing one policy options among many would have sparked internal civil war.
At any rate, cunning old Dominic Cummings has been proved right, given the referendum result – or at the very least not wrong. But now that proceedings are over, it’s time to think about choosing from this menu of options (or, at any rate, trying to do so, since the choice will not be ours but shared with the EU institutions and other European governments). Furthermore, it must be considered not in abstract terms, as one to be knocked about to-and-fro in the happy world of theory, but in concrete ones – that’s to say, in the post-referendum world in which we now live.
It is one in which Scotland voted to remain within the EU, and in which Northern Ireland did too. There must now be a serious prospect of the SNP engineering a second independence on referendum, and a serious prospect too of nationalism winning it. The Northern Ireland dimension of the post-referendum aftermath is full of hazards. 46 per cent of England’s electorate voted to stay. So did a slightly higher percentage of Wales’s. Leave has a mandate for Brexit. It does not have one to exercise it in any way it likes – namely, in one that maximises the chance of breaking up the United Kingdom and inflames civil discord within it.
Besides, the pro-Remain majority in the Commons remains in place. Roughly three in four MPs want Britain to stay in the EU. They should not be able to have their way – as David Cameron said yesterday, the referendum result must be respected – but they are entitled to help shape the terms on which Brexit is conducted. Which brings us to the Norway option. The key fact about Norway is that it is not in the EU but in the Single Market. The Prime Minister confirmed yesterday that he wants the United Kingdom to stay in the latter. This is clearly the settled position of the pro-Remain majority in Parliament.
Indeed, no less committed a Remain supporter than Ken Clarke recommended yesterday that Britain join the European Economic Area – the bloc within which Norway exercises its arrangements with the EU. It may well be, therefore, that support for the Norwegian option would remove the biggest single internal difficulty for the new Conservative Prime Minister and Government: the potential opposition to a post-Brexit deal of a hardcore group of Remain refuseniks on the Tory backbenches, which would do to the new Government what Bill Cash and company did to the Major Government over Maastricht.
Remain put up a number of objections to the Norway option to which some Leave supporters object in turn. It is claimed that Norway has no say in how EU rules are made that may affect its interests. Yes, it has no say in the voting, writes our columnist Daniel Hannan, but no, it doesn’t follow that it has no say in the outcome, because most of the deals on rules are done before voting takes place. Furthermore, he points out, most of the rules that matter are set not at EU level but at a global one – by the World Trade Organisation, the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.
Norway has a seat at the table of these organisations. Britain does not: its interests are represented by the European Commission, which also has those of the other 27 EU states to consider. It can therefore be argued strongly that Norway has the better of these alternatives. Nor is Norway compelled to implement all the EU laws that it does (some nine per cent of the total, according to Hannan, not the three-quarters sometimes claimed) since it has a right of reservation that allows it discretion. He has cited the example of the EU’s Postal Services Directive, which Norway didn’t put into effect.
The big objection of some Brexiteers to the Norway option is that you gain on the swings, by leaving the EU, but lose on the roundabouts, by remaining within the Single Market, and thus falling within the purview of the European Court. Cummings has blogged against the Norway solution, arguing that while the Single Market may delight lobbyists it doesn’t boost growth – or at least that there’s no evidence that it has. He suggests that it creates a corrupt client-rigged cartel and is an integral part of the EU’s political project.
The most substantial problem of all about the Norway option is that the country is in Schengen, and that its means of restricting immigration are therefore insufficient. Lord Ashcroft’s research suggests that opposition to present levels of migration were one of the reasons why Britain plumped for Leave. As this site has argued, the Brexit deal must ensure lower immigration. However, it is not true to claim that Norway has no means of controlling immigration at all. It has “safeguarding measures” – in short, an emergency brake that can be applied unilaterally.
Yes, that’s the same brake that David Cameron originally hinted he wanted, that other EU countries and its institutions denied him, and which might well have won him the referendum had it been in place. Boris Johnson, Theresa May and the other Conservative leadership candidates will want to avoid Brexit specifics, since these risk losing them votes during the contest. But they will be put on the spot none the less: that’s one of the effects that these elections have. They will be asked for their views on the Norway option, and their replies should be watched closely.
A footnote: we use the term “Norway option” merely as a means of convenience. Were it to become a model for a deal, it would be a Norway-type option, strictly speaking: few arrangements are ever completely replicable. We might, say, propose a bit more immigration control and a bit less market access. There is another reason why “Norway option” is not quite right. Strictly speaking, this is really an EEA option, since Norway’s settlement is enjoyed by the other EEA countries including, er, Iceland. So the Norway option is also the Iceland option. I apologise to our English readers for having to point this out.