Norway option, at least in the interim, offers the only sensible route out of this mess

The Conservative party likes to boast that it, combined with our FPTP electoral system, provides strong and stable government.

Well, a fat lot of strength and stability the Tory party and FPTP system have given us in the last two years!

We’ve had two Prime Ministers, Cameron and May, who will have historians squabbling for years as to whether they are the worst or second worst or third worst Prime Ministers in the history of this country!

David Cameron put party before country when he promised an EU referendum, ending with his political shredding.

It is unbelievable that Theresa May’s “snap election” mistake (from her point of view) now looks even more stupid than David Cameron’s error.

I emphasise the words “from her point of view”.

I always told anyone who would listen that May’s decision to call an election was the right thing for the country. After the June 23rd 2016 referendum we needed a national democratic event to sort-out the situation. So I commend May for calling the election, just as, incidentally I commend Cameron for calling the EU referendum. The rub is that May didn’t call the election for the good of the country, she called it for the good of herself.

The result of the election gives me great reason for optimism. The arrangement with the DUP won’t last five years. It is constitutionally correct that the make-up of Parliament dictates the government. And the DUP will be involved long enough to stop a hard Brexit by means of keeping the porous Irish border. Dependent on which parties provide the deputy speakers, Theresa May will have a working majority of 8-10. With by-elections happening on average at the rate of 2-3 a year, that isn’t going to last her five years, plus there are bound to be enormous complications in Ireland, because of the DUP’s involvement in sustaining the UK government.

So we haven’t heard the last of this yet. The second shoe is yet to drop. That may be a Bouncing BoJo appearance or another election. If you count the June 23rd referendum as the first act in this madness, then perhaps we should say that there is yet to be the Third Act of this drama, which will hopefully turn out to be a Comedy of Errors rather than a Tragedy.

But once again, it is becoming more and more crazy that this country has not, at least as an interim “holding” solution, gone for the Norway (EEA/EFTA) option. The ludicrous and (I believe) unconstitutional decision by Theresa May to rule out membership of the Single Market, and even, unbelievably, the Customs Union, was one of the most heinous acts of any British Prime Minister ever. The sooner we come to our senses and realise that EEA/EFTA memberships offers us a temporary sanctuary while we compose ourselves, the better.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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40 Comments

  • Andrew Melmoth 10th Jun '17 - 8:10pm

    Triggering article 50 and then calling an election was grossly irresponsible.

  • Andrew McCaig 10th Jun '17 - 8:15pm

    Paul,
    I agree, continued full membership of the Single Market (which is what the Norway option means) is the best medium term aim, and one that the EU will almost certainly offer as a “transitional deal”

    However Corbyn and Starmer have rejected this, so the Labour Party will need to make a big U-turn if this is to happen, but I guess the word “transitional” may allow it.

    I always thought our “no to Hard Brexit” slogan was a big mistake. Neither Labour not Tory ever admitted to wanting a “Hard Brexit” because no-one knew what it meant. “Yes to the Single Market” is more positive and distinguishes us from both Tory and Labour. Putting that front and centre while keeping the possibility of another referendum in the background would be the smart policy..
    All other economic policy flows from that. Without the Single Market (and customs union) there will simply not be the money for Labour’s promises but we never got that across.

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Jun '17 - 8:39pm

    A Norway option (by which I mean EU OUT EEA IN) is very, very sensible and, frankly, what ALL parties should have been following since the referendum. As things have turned out indeed I can’t actually see any other option. This election result may yet be a blessing in a, very good, disguise.

    Indeed, it may even turn out to be good for the EU in the long-run. With a ‘core’ Eurozone having much further integration and an ‘outer’ tier in the EEA the EU can function much more effectively.

    Yes, free movement is an issue, but it can be worked on. See – http://eulawanalysis.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/free-movement-of-persons-in-european.html. Outside of that the UK government can do things that it could (arguably should) have been doing in the past, notably a proper registration scheme.

    As it is my take on the election is that there is no appetite for a hard leave and no appetite to reopen the referendum.

    Andrew McCaig – I don’t remember Labour saying that about the single market. Do you have a source? p24 of the Labour Manifesto says, ‘We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union.’

    My reading of that sentence is the Norway option.

  • Andrew,

    It’s difficult to get across messages that people don’t want to hear. The Brexiteers believe Brexit fixes everything. A lot of Labour supporters believe you can have free stuff and someone else will pay. I believe both groups are wrong but I fear they will need to learn from experience that they are wrong; unfortunately those that believe neither fallacy will have to learn with them.

  • There is also the option outlined by Andrew Duff (someone who does seriously know his stuff when it comes to the EU) about having an association agreement in the same way as Ukraine.

    That does seem to square the circle of free market access without (full) free movement of labour and does have the advantage from a negotiation point of view that (a) a lot of the fine detail already exists and (b) its hard to see why the EU could justify offering that deal to the Ukraine but not the UK.

    http://ukandeu.ac.uk/the-case-for-a-new-association-agreement/

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Jun '17 - 8:45pm

    Frankie – Out of interest, why not be brave and tell us what you think should happen now instead of handing out your standard issue internet feel-good barbs?

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Jun '17 - 8:49pm

    Hywel – The problem with the Ukraine option is that the intention was almost certainly for it to be a stepping-stone to full EU membership. That said it is not totally clear why the EU would be unwilling to go down the Ukraine/DCA route with the UK – as you say the precedents are pretty clear. I did actually wonder whether Theresa May might have gone down that route.

    There is lots of hot air on both the UK and EU side at the moment.

  • Little Jackie,

    Well as the Irish man said ‘Well sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’. You can go for a fast Brexit and that will cause considerable pain or you can slow it down and spread the pain while giving the economy time to adapt. I think the longer the transition the better but you’re reliant on the kindness of the EU for time. The problem you have (because after all Brexit is your baby and not mine) is I detect little appetite on the part of the EU too be kind (if anyone knows different I would love to be proved wrong), I think they just want us gone as soon as possible.

    I know it may be strange but anything that goes wrong is now your responsibility and anything that goes right you can claim the credit for. What you wanted has come true but that means I can sit on the side lines and criticise much like Farage and Co have done for the last forty odd years.

  • Nom de Plume 10th Jun '17 - 9:26pm

    @Hywel

    For a person who spent many years as an MEP, Andrew Duff would seem to have a poor grasp of politics. The EU will not allow its own political project to be undermined.

    Ukraine is a poor country which for good, geo-political reasons it wants to bring nearer to the EU. It offers various incentives. I am not so sure they would want it as a full member. The same has been said about Turkey in the past. Europe has its boundries.

    Britain is a net contributer to the EU budject and a beneficiary of access to the single market. They will have done their calculations and know how much it is worth to the british economy. Whether Britain can get change on freedom of movement will depend on whether they consider it integral to the Single Market and political considerations as to what east european states may want in return, plus any other political considerations. All very complicated. All in a tight time frame. There will be no net better deal.

    On a personal note, I find it quite sad that the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe is mostly talked about in terms of trade. There is a ‘them and us’ attitude. I blame the education system.

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Jun '17 - 9:31pm

    Frankie – Come on, you can be braver and do better than that! That post is just a load of words with no actual content. Indulge me – I’ve got a cup of tea and F1 is on. I asked what you think should happen?

    UK in the euro? UK in Schengen? Cameron deal? Norway?

    Come on – give me some actual brave content here.

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Jun '17 - 9:36pm

    Non de Plume – My wife is from Eastern Europe and I go out there a lot. I think part of the problem with enlargement was that the EU almost saw the acquis as a type of development tool. It certainly isn’t. For their part the East Europeans tended to see the EU as some type of benign big brother. Post euro and migrants the certainly don’t see the EU as risk-free now. As Ukraine has shown the geopolitics of EU enlargement go well beyond trade deals.

    On the UK more generally I think that there has been a real problem that perhaps liberals haven’t always confronted which is that there is a problem with reciprocity. What to do about it is another matter but it was ignored for too long.

  • “For a person who spent many years as an MEP, Andrew Duff would seem to have a poor grasp of politics.”

    There is no reason why people have a good grasp of politics just because they got elected (and that may be a fair criticism of Andrew). But – and it is an important one – this is a model of arrangement the EU already has so it works in practice – and as said the set up is there and it would be a little illogical to offer those terms to one non-EU country and not another. (though the point about Ukraine being on a path to join is a fair one).

    I guess the point is that there ARE alternative arrangements that can be considered. it might have been good had those been discussed at a general election….

  • jackie,

    For the avoidance of doubt I Brexit is stupid and going through with it is stupid. Now the least stupid thing to do is to do as little of it as possible as slowly as possible. I know however that is a minority view and Brexit will be forced through fast and hard because the British want it and more to the point so do the EU now. So we will be where we are and at the end I’ll get to say well it wasn’t in my name and you’ll probably be in Eastern Europe saying that wasn’t my kind of Brexit.

  • Nom de Plume 10th Jun '17 - 9:55pm

    @Little Jackie Paper

    I don’t know where your wife is from, but Eastern Europe is not an homogenous blob. There are varying degrees of sceptism. The migrant issue has certainly caused tensions, but the EU is also, potentially, the solution. The migrants are not going away. US/UK foreign policy is no small part responsible for this. It is also not so simple. Neither Greece or Italy where most of the migrants arrive are looking to the leave the EU. It has caused tensions in France and the Netherlands, also not looking to leave. There is a problem to solve.

    Large numbers of East Europeans work in Germany, also not looking to leave the EU. It is a particularly British problem. That said, I have elsewhere criticized the way and speed with which the EU expanded. Both politically and economically Romania, Hungary and possibly Poland were let in too soon. Too much idealism post Cold War.

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Jun '17 - 11:31pm

    Hywel – As I said, it did cross my mind that May might have taken the Ukraine type of deal and, for domestic consumption, dressed it up as a so-called ‘hard Brexit.’ In reality it is, as you say, not even that big a departure for the EU as an option. Like you I think we should have had the discussion at the election, but too late now.

    For me the key question raised by the article is whether something like EEA IN, EU OUT would get support across the country. I think it would. Ultimately the message in this election seems to have been that there is no appetite for a hard leave and no appetite to reopen the referendum. To me that leaves EEA IN EU OUT as the only game in town.

    Whether the LDP would have benefitted electorally from EEA IN EU OUT we’ll never know. But as I said earlier Labour appear to have had EEA IN EU OUT in their manifesto and didn’t do that badly.

  • Pass on that. Certainly I think the party position (if it must be what sort of Brexit deal we get) needs a lot of fleshing out. It is a pity that Andrew hasn’t been brought into that when Nick did his briefings. I hope those continue as it is important for credibility reasons to have a strong underpinning of whatever the campaign position is.

  • You can go for a fast Brexit and that will cause considerable pain or you can slow it down and spread the pain while giving the economy time to adapt. ”

    But you can’t slow it down. In 21 months time the UK will be out of the EU. That’s how art 50 works. There would probably be scope to withdraw the notification – though that gets harder the longer it goes. It could be delayed but that needs unanimity of the R-27 which will be harder to get.

  • Dave Orbison 11th Jun '17 - 1:23am

    Rumours of May approaching Tim Farron – surely not true. I hope.

  • Alex Macfie 11th Jun '17 - 1:58am

    She can approach, but will be rebuffed.

  • Bill le Breton 11th Jun '17 - 4:50am

    Well done Paul for giving this option another kick forward!

    Good to see Hywel making major contributions including reminding readers of the huge experience Andrew Duff can bring to our thinking. I have linked this site to every major paper Andrew has written on this subject.

    May I also recommend Ann Pettifor whose open letter to Corbyn should also go to our Tim http://www.primeeconomics.org/articles/an-open-letter-to-jeremy-corbyn-labour-needs-to-act-fast

  • Andrew Tampion 11th Jun '17 - 5:22am

    Little Jackie Paper. Since no one seems to have answered your question on the Labour Party’s position on the Single Market. You need to look at page 28 of their Manifesto which says “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.” Which implies leaving the Single Market. Also page 24 which you refer to talks about retaining the benefits of membership of the Single Market and also of the Customs Union: not membership of either. The only difference between Labour and Tory positions appears to me to be that the Labour Party does not say that no deal is better than a bad deal. Also from a socialist point of view leaving the EU is may be attractive because it makes re-nationalisation easier because you then wouldn’t have to allow EU businesses to bid to run government services.

  • Mark Frankel 11th Jun '17 - 7:54am

    David Davis has been saying how difficult the Brexit negotiations are going to be – and he is (for the time being) the Brexit Secretary! There’s going to have to be a transitional arrangement which will probably solidify into a messy version of the status quo. But what an abject and sustained failure in leadership at the top of the Conservative Party.

  • Philip Knowles 11th Jun '17 - 8:05am

    There is a basic flaw with the ‘Norway option’. The cost per head that Norway contributes to the EU is greater than we do and they have to accept all the EU regulations but have no say in the rules themselves. That is unsellable to the Brexiters in the Tory party or, to be honest, to the Remainers who will see it for the fudge that it is.
    We are in a absolutely ridiculous situation where first David Cameron and, now, Theresa May, have painted themselves into a corner to appease a small, vocal group of Tory backbenchers. The same group caused trouble for John Major too and the future of the whole country has been sacrificed to appease them. Now Theresa May is going to have to sell her soul to the DUP (and betray the country again) to keep the same group on side.
    The solution is to withdraw the triggering of Article 50 (it can be withdrawn – it was deliberately drafted to give a ‘cooling off’ period in the event of a democratic ‘blip’ in a member country) and attempt to have a rational debate with both the EU and the people of the UK about the future of the EU.
    We need to step back from the brink and the EU need to realise that they have to give Theresa May something to save face. The recent French Presidential election and turmoil in other countries show there is a general disquiet with the EU from the citizens of Europe which needs to be addressed otherwise the dominoes will start to fall. If we leave it will be the trigger for the disintegration of the EU because the budget will be unsustainable.
    Unfortunately, with the hard-nosed approach that both sides are taking there is very little chance of a sensible, pragmatic approach.

  • Norway option – worst of all worlds – freedom of movement (although I think that is fundamentally good), acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, annual (significant membership fee), must accept all EU regulations on trade and the single market – BUT NO VOTE OR SEAT IN DECISION-MAKING! Hence, we need to go back to remaining in the EU as a full member!

    The Norway option means that we would have thrown away all the foreign policy power of being on the inside f the largest trading block in the world – becoming a marginalized minnow of the western Atlantic. If we were ever let back into the EU again, gone would be the budget rebate, various opt-outs (including, critically, the Euro) and from Schengen (however that might become modified. In summary, a massive loss …. and that is the best case under a Noway (EEA/EFTA) solution.

  • Clearly the Norway option is worse than full EU membership, but it’s still better than a hard Brexit, and might be enough to satisfy all of those people who didn’t understand what it was they didn’t like about the EU, or complained about those laws forced upon us that they couldn’t list.

  • Andrew McCaig 11th Jun '17 - 9:17am

    Andrew Tampion,
    Thanks for explaining that membership of the single market includes freedom of movement. The fact that people on here still confuse “membership” with “access” is an indication of how ill-defined our “hard Brexit” policy has been.
    The long article about differences between EEA law and EU law cited above shows that in practice they are almost identical. Variations are possible in both cases. Non-membership of Schengen is mentioned as a big difference in that article but of course we are not in Schengen..
    The most recent precedent is Switzerland. They voted narrowly to end Freedom of Movement in a 2014 referendum, and were suspended from Erasmus and EU science funding as a result. In Dec 2016 they gave in and are back in the EEA. They got a minor concession over prioritising Swiss nationals in job applications, but that is all. EEA agreements can be bespoke (the Swiss one does not include Financial Services, for example), but the EU has made it very clear that membership of the Single Market for the UK must include Freedom of Movement.
    It is also worth pointing out that the Swiss government has just overturned the result of a referendum. For us, retaining Freedom of Movement would not even mean that…

  • The Observer is reporting that senior Tories are suggesting a cross party consensus on Brexit needs to agreed. Stay away from that, they are just trying to spread the blame and silence opposition voices. If Labour or the SNP are daft enough to agree to it more fool them.

  • Andrew McCaig 11th Jun '17 - 9:26am

    John Innes,
    Any trade deal with the EU that is advantageous to Britain (for example including financial services) is going to come with a large fee..
    However, the fee is clearly negotiable, as shown by the Thatcher short term rebate which is still in place today.. The EU will be very keen on a Single Market membership deal which would allow an easy return to full membership. That is why it will be offered as an interim deal (infinitely extendable, like the rebate)

  • Here’s the thing. The Conservatives now have no choice but to pursue a Norway option as their own party won’t allow any other option. Anna Soubry and co will vote a Hard Brexit down. So the Tories will now have to go for the Soft Brexit which will not give them the control of Immigration they seek. This could well revive UKIP and put pressure on the Conservatives. So another referendum at the end of this is possible but the choice may be to stay as is (soft Brexit) or pursue a hard Brexit. This will inevitably lead to calls to put membership of the EU back on the ballot paper!

  • The EU will want to send a strong message that voting to leave the EU is foolish, so can’t be seen to give us too good a deal, but I think that message has already been broadcast loudly and clearly. If we do show a bit of humility and push for continued membership of some aspect of the EEA or single market, then that is surely better for the EU brand than having us insisting on leaving altogether.

    We need a deal that saves face for both the UK and the EU, and that will require some diplomacy. The UK will have to ditch the attitude of “they need us more than we need them”, and thought that we can have our cake and eat it. Given we are likely to have another election sooner than originally expected, there is an opportunity for a bit of tactical U-turning by the Tories, which can be blamed on the DUP or Ruth Davidson.

    I go back to the fact that many people who voted for Brexit didn’t really understand what they were voting for or against, and while that was hugely frustrating, it also gives the opportunity to strike a deal which can be sold as sufficiently different to full membership to be sufficiently acceptable to the majority of the population.

  • I hoped Theresa May would mess up but the extent to which she has shown her incompetence and stupidity is unbelievable. And now she’s getting in bed with this retro shower that make UKIP look left wing and tolerant. Thank goodness we , the LibDems, made it clear we weren’t bailing her out. Soft Brexit or better still no Brexit are real options but there is still the threat of a) the Tory Right Wing Head Bangers (are there 60?!!) and b) Tories being re-elected next time if they keep their heads above water. Hope not

  • Richard Underhill 11th Jun '17 - 11:47am

    We should note that Montenegro has joined NATO, but can it remain a member? Looking at maps it is convenient and tidy to complete the coastline of the former Yugoslavia, but we should also remember the history.

  • No one seems to have noticed that eighty five per cent of voters supported parties that said they wanted to leave the single market.

  • Sue Sutherland 11th Jun '17 - 1:56pm

    Thank you for the link Bill but what the author doesn’t mention is that Labour is now supported by large numbers of young people who took the trouble to vote and the majority of young people wish to Remain. This may counterbalance Labour’s concern about losing their traditional voters if they failed to back Brexit and make them more amenable to shifting their position. In addition they must already know that their health education and social care policies can’t be funded if our economy nose dives and it’s those policies that attracted those young voters as well.
    The EU position on austerity may soften too. Macron is looking for a new deal but I’m not sure what he means by that. I think our party should be doing a lot of talking to the other anti Tory parties as well as our colleagues in the EU. Nick Clegg is the obvious person to connect with our EU friends and maybe all our MPs should be talking to members of other parties as much as they will be talking to each other.
    I think the Tories should be left to collapse on their own whilst we attack them for causing chaos. They managed all right when we were part of the Coalition but look what a shower they are without us!

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 11th Jun '17 - 3:10pm

    I don’t think we should give up on stopping Brexit completely. What it needs is a big offer to those who voted leave along the lines of “We get it. This is how we are going to sort out housing and public services and low pay and let you catch a break. Brexit won’t solve your issues, but we will” There are enough sensible progressives in Parliament to build a consensus for this sort of approach.

  • David Becket 11th Jun '17 - 3:51pm

    @ Martin
    We ned to get them in the room. All options are open now, and some words are going to need to be eaten, starting with May and Corbyn and their opposition to the single market.
    With support from Left Wing Tories and Right Wing Labour the Single Market is the clearest way out of this mess, possibly the only way. We should be leading on this proposal.
    @ Carron
    Sorry, you saw how your country viewed a second referendum with horror, and it did us little good also. Go for a plan to sort out the current mess and stop dreaming about reversing Brexit. EEA is not the ideal option, but it is the best we can make happen now.

  • David Becket 11th Jun '17 - 4:49pm

    Why have we let Labour take the lead in calling for an all party approach to the Brexit negotiations?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Jun '17 - 5:13pm

    I am of the view that if the option referred to thus is with the same freedom of movement, Labour are the party of the middle on this not , a hard Brexit.

    To have no say in decisions but sign up to things and pay a fortune , is nonsense for this country.

    It would be far better to have associate membership and less money to pay less freedom of movement .

    We as a party have lost the argument on immigration. I never understand why it is right for this party to refer to people who touched down here to pick fruit five minutes ago as our fellow citizens, but impose a cap on earnings for a spouse to join their other.

    Corbyn woke up on this . He talked more like the ultra libertarian borderless anti real world pro one world people who talk to much in our party considering the vast majority think it is nonsense. He changed. He moderated. He has seen the real world on this and it makes sense.

    I take a balanced view on all things which is why am a Liberal and a social democrat , not a conservative or a socialist.

    But I see this party needs more of the sense of reality that it had when it went in to coalition , but needs different policies !

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