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For Britain to join – or rather stay in – the EEA, while also leaving the EU, would honour the referendum result.  The four EFTA countries, all of which bar one are EEA members, are not in the EU.  But it isn’t quite as simple as that.

It was a peculiar feature of the referendum campaign, and of the run-up to it, that senior players on both sides played down the option.  Michael Gove, Vote Leave’s co-convenor, said that were Leave to win, Britain would leave the Single Market, hence ruling out EEA membership.  The most senior figure on the Remain side, no less senior a figure than David Cameron himself, made more or less the same argument.  In short, both campaigns waved away the table d’hote menu, and stressed that a Brexit Britain would dine a la carte.  This was also the thrust of Change or Go, the epic report drawn up by Vote Leave’s predecessor, Business for Britain.

By the time Theresa May came to set out her Brexit policy at the Conservative Party conference of 2016, the die had been cast.  “So it is not going to a “Norway model”.  It’s not going to be a “Switzerland model”.  It is going to be an agreement between an independent, sovereign United Kingdom and the European Union,” she said. “It is going to be an agreement between an independent, sovereign United Kingdom and the European Union…We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again.”  The Government committed itself to seeking a bespoke agreement.

All this presents a peculiar obstacle to taking the EEA route post-Brexit.  The Prime Minister criticised the Canadian option, pre-Chequers, as well as the EEA one – most notably in her Mansion House speech earlier this year.  But she has been strikingly insistent that “Norway”, as the EEA option is often described, cannot be part of our future after next March.  In particular, she has stressed that free movement must end.  So while it is possible to imagine her chucking Chequers, and reverting to “Canada Plus Plus Plus”, as David Davis labelled her previous policy, it is very hard indeed to imagine her being able execute an even more drastic U-turn, and seeking to take the EEA route.

So were the Government to seek to do so, therefore, a new Prime Minister would probably be required.  One can go on to argue that, given the referendum campaign and what’s happened since, a general election would be necessary to endorse the new policy.

This is the background against which the campaign for the EEA should be viewed – or, rather, the two campaigns.  For it is necessary to distinguish between those who want to stay permanently in Norway, so to speak, and those who want to park there for a while before moving on to Canada.  James Cartlidge has made the latter case on ConservativeHome.  So did Nick Boles last year.  He had another push last Sunday.  A day later, he was joined by George Trefgarne, who set out his stall on this site this week.  And while either route might require a new Prime Minister, and the risk of an election that the Conservatives might lose, the transitional one poses special questions.

After all, it is not very flattering for the EFTA countries to be told that Britain wants to join their club, in the EEA context, for a few brief years until it can find somewhere better to move to.  Might they turn the request down?  Furthermore, why would a few extra years change the EU’s negotiating stance?  What would happen if Britain approached the end of a temporary EEA period, only to find that the EU’s negotiating stance was much as now?  What if the EU were still be to digging its heels in about the UK-Ireland border?  Would it really be willing to drop regulatory alignment after a few years? All the familiar arguments about the perils of a No Deal exit would be re-heated.

These questions morph into wider ones about the EEA option as a while.  Most crucially: is there time to pursue such a policy now, even were May able to pursue it, given the closeness of Brexit Day?  Then there is the ferocious scrap between pro and anti-EEA Brexiteers about whether or not the EU has, in effect, the power to veto our continued EEA membership post-Brexit.  In either case, the Commission would presumably press for Britain to pay the £40 billion “divorce bill” agreed in principle last December.  Handing over the money and then staying in the Single Market could be a bridge too far for voters.  (One can begin to see why a new mandate would probably be required.)

Now it is important to stress that there are potential answers to at least some of these questions.  Like “Canada”, “Norway” is a tried-and-test model for the Commission.  So why would it seek to hold up the latter were Britain to pursue it?  Boles argues that in exchange for an interim customs union, the EU might be willing to drop the £40 claim for a lower one-off payment.  (It is worth noting that we are evidently in no condition, due to the Government gambling on a deal, and hence on the proposed transition period applying, simply to quit the present customs dispensation next April.)

The disagreements between pro and anti-EEA Brexiteers about what “Norway” would mean stretch wider.  (For example, there is a continued dogfight over whether the EFTA court is in effect independent of the ECJ.)  On some of them, the pros have the edge.  It is plus for the EEA option that it would give us freedom to strike our own trade deals, once we have our customs ducks in a row. On others, the antis are out in front.  It is a minus that the so-called safeguard measures on migration are hedged about with problems.  For example, they must be applied after consultations with the EEA joint committee “with a view to finding a commonly acceptable solution”.

On one point, we side with the EEA advocates.  The claim that Britain will become a vassal state if we take the Norway route post-Brexit is overblown. As Daniel Hannan pointed out on ConservativeHome three years ago, Norway is not “excluded from the EU’s own decision-making process. As Anne Tvinnereim of Norway’s Centre Party…explains: “We are not there when they vote, but we do get to influence the position. Most of the politics is done long before it gets to the voting stage”.  Supporters of the Chequers scheme will argue that it offers a superior solution on services, because we would write our own rules, and on immigration, because we would have more flexibility.

This site is where we were before.  The most elegant solution to a negotiating impasse is a Canada Plus Plus Plus scheme, as revealed on this site by way of David Davis’ Alternative White Paper.  Expect more soon on the same theme from the former Brexit Secretary and the ERG.  None the less, the months ahead, as March 29 next year approaches, will not be the forum for an academic debate on the best future for Britain.  Rather, they will be shaped by governmental and parliamentary rough-and-tumble, amidst the most momentous months for this country perhaps since the Suez crisis, arguably since the Second World War.

If a deal is not agreed, or is voted down in the Commons, the question will not be: is the EEA the perfect port in which to seek to dock?  Rather, it could become: is the risk of No Brexit at all; or of an unmanageable No Deal, greater than the disadvantages of EEA membership – even at the risk, as we would see it, of being stuck permanently in the arrangement?  We do not have an answer to that last question yet.  Dominic Raab has further announcements on preparations to make.  And we await more assessments of the consequences of No Deal might bring with it – for example, from Open Europe later this month.

But during the interim, one thought is worth dwelling on.  Not so long ago, the bulk of the Eurosceptic movement would have embraced “Norway” (with its greater room for manoeuvre on farming, fishing, home and foreign affairs and, up to a point, on migration too) with arms wide-open.  Is it wise now to wave it away and rule it out altogether – even if new leadership is required?

178 comments for: The thrills and spills of seeking the EEA port in a storm

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