“It’s time to study the map that leads from Norway to Canada,” we wrote in October – having already given the scheme “conceived by George Yarrow, written by Rupert Darwall, produced by George Trefgarne and now choreographed by Nick Boles” a fair wind last summer. This site trawled through the pluses and minuses of the proposal as best it could, urging Downing Street to drop its defunct Chequers Plan and study Norway-to-Canada as an alternative.
The scheme has since run on to the rocks – and this Norwegian group has divided – for three main reasons. First, most Brexiteer MPs have been cool about the scheme at best and cold at worst. Second, the Government set out to strangle it at birth: it is unlikely that Erna Solberg will have consistently poured icy water on the plan without Downing Street’s approval. Finally, and more significantly still, the EU has discouraged it, since its preferred models are either Norway-plus-the-backstop or Canada-plus-the-backstop.
Rather than drop the plan, Boles has taken the only practicable route now available to him – namely, making a virtue of necessity, and swallowing Norway-plus-the-backstop, teaming up recently with Stephen Kinnock to promote it. While we can see a case for Norway to Canada (or “Norway for Now”, as its supporters then called it) and some pluses from permanent EEA membership, we can’t see an upside from Norway-plus-the-backstop (or “Norway Plus”, as its backers now label it, though “Norway Minus” would be a better label, since the possibility of a permanent customs union arrangement is a negative, not a positive).
Its supporters sometimes argue that the backstop may fall away in time. But since it therefore may not, the scheme is left in the same condition as Theresa May’s proposed deal in this regard. In other crucial respects, it is inferior to it, since the Prime Minister’s plan would end freedom of movement and payments to EU budgets. Norway Plus would deliver the latter – though some money would pass from the UK to the EU27 – but not the former.
On borders, the EEA Agreement allows for “safeguard measures” – the so-called “emergency brake” – and “limitations justified on grounds of public policy”. We are not in a position to apply the former, given the fall in EU migration, and it would be a stretch to work the latter, which could be used to limit work permits, into fully-fledged control of borders. On money, we’d presumably have to pay “EFTA grants” to the poorer EU states. That might well cost less than payments into the EU budget – but these would still be payments none the less.
Debating these points leads inevitably to a bigger one. Supporters of all the Norway variants tend to argue that the UK is leaving the EU, not the EEA – and that we can therefore simply take up our EEA rights. Legally, they may be correct. But we suspect that the determinant of whether we could take up the Norwegian plans in any form would be politics, not law. And our columnist Henry Newman has a point when he suggests that the EEA states, whether EU members or not, believe that the UK is too big to be treated like Norway.
The long and short of it is that we would probably, under any kind of EEA and EFTA arrangement, have to draw up our own special deal – a separate UK “pillar”. Negotiating it would throw up distinct problems. Henry writes that the EU won’t want us to have Norway’ services deal, and that “others don’t want us out of the Fisheries Policy & CAP, nor under the EFTA Court & Surveillance Authority (rather than the European Court of Justice). While they are at it we will probably end up asked to pay more money. Add these together and they could quickly take away any advantages of Norway Plus and move it towards non-voting EU membership in all but name.”
To be clear: on paper, pure EEA membership has some positives. We would be outside the EU’s jurisdiction on fisheries, farming, criminal justice, foreign affairs, defence and immigration. The scale of the EU acquis would be smaller. Our role in shaping it wouldn’t end: while it is true that we would technically become a rule-taker, is an exaggeration to claim that, in practical terms, we would end up as a vassal state.
But Norway Plus is not undistilled EEA membership. And the latter is unlikely to be on offer in any event. None the less, the Boles proposal has one big advantage over that other option currently being pushed in the Commons – postponing and then reversing Brexit via a second referendum. Norway in any form equals leaving the EU – technically, anyway. It could not truthfully be claimed that Norway Plus would dishonour the referendum instruction, though it can certainly be argued that while it sticks to the letter it is wide of the spirit.
That may matter if – or perhaps we should say when – May’s deal goes down. Remove from its opponents the minority of MPs who would tolerate or welcome no deal, and what remains looks like a potential majority for either a second referendum or for Norway Plus. Given a choice between the two, we would plump for the latter. But we firmly believe the Government can avoid having to make it, by opting instead for the managed no deal that a mass of Cabinet Ministers and leadership candidates are now preparing to push for.