July 29, 2021

Only the ‘Norway Plus’ plan can save Brexit

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By NICHOLAS BOLES From Financial Times

If parliament blocks May’s deal, the European Economic Area offers an alternative

In Westminster, everyone is hunting for a Brexit Plan B. Newspapers are full of reports of various minister meetings behind closed doors over pizza in a desperate attempt to find an answer. For three months, an alternative has been hiding in plain sight.

It has been a lonely task plugging the Norway option — Brexit via the European Economic Area — to my Conservative colleagues. Most Remainers and pragmatic Leavers have supported Theresa May’s efforts to negotiate a bespoke deal based on the Chequers proposals. And most hardline Brexiters have been holding out for that Fantastic Beast of Johnsonian folklore: the SuperDuper Canada deal.

But in recent days something has changed. Last week four Cabinet ministers invited me in to talk about my plan. Even before the ink has dried, Tory MPs have concluded that the prime minister’s deal is dead on arrival. Desperate to avoid the calamities of crashing out with no deal, or a second referendum, most are seeking something else.

The plan has evolved since it was launched in September. At first, I advocated temporary membership of the EEA and the European Free Trade Association while we negotiated a Canada-style free trade agreement. Since then, it has become clear that temporary membership will not be acceptable to the other members of Efta or to the EU. I have also realised that we will need a special exemption from Efta’s free trade agreements, so the UK can remain in a temporary customs union with the EU while other arrangements are being negotiated to preserve a soft border in Ireland.

In its latest incarnation, the proposal is best described as “Norway Plus”. It involves accepting Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement in full — but renegotiating the political declaration to specify that, after the transition, the UK will join Efta and move into the Efta pillar of the EEA. We would also remain in a customs union until new arrangements have been agreed. Britain would need to swallow the Irish border backstop as drafted, but should ask for an explicit commitment from the EU to support the UK’s accession to Efta and facilitate our transfer into the Efta pillar of the EEA by December 2020, so that it never needs to be activated.

Norway Plus offers immediate advantages. We would be in the single market but outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. We would be outside of the common agricultural and fisheries policies — able to operate as an independent coastal state.

We would no longer be bound by the EU’s drive towards “ever closer union” and, after the divorce settlement, would pay substantially less in annual contributions abroad. We would still be bound by freedom of movement. But we would benefit from Article 112 of the EEA which states that “if serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties . . . are arising” unilateral action can be taken on a temporary basis. So if migration from Europe returned to the levels of the mid 2000s, we should be able to pull an emergency brake to limit the numbers.

Norway Plus strikes the right balance between fulfilling the mandate of the 2016 referendum while preserving economic ties with the EU. It also has the potential to command broad support in parliament. More than 70 Labour MPs voted for the Norway option when the Commons debated it this year. SNP leader and first minister Nicola Sturgeon said last week that it was an option that the Scottish nationalists would be willing to explore. And Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist party leader Arlene Foster has made plain that the Democratic Unionists could live with this arrangement because all parts of the UK would be treated the same.

Mrs May is right to say that the British people want politicians to stop arguing about Brexit and get on with it; that it is time for parliament to turn its attention back to domestic concerns. If her deal is defeated in early December, Norway Plus offers a pragmatic solution to deliver Brexit and unite the country.

The writer is a Conservative MP and chair of the Norway for Now campaign.

IMAGE: Norway Plus strikes the right balance between fulfilling the mandate of the 2016 referendum while preserving economic ties with the EU

For more on this story go to: https://www.ft.com/content/833dd0b6-f168-11e8-938a-543765795f99?segmentId=25195192-5b86-d364-0ac4-a39610fb15be

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