A comeback for the Norway option
You may be surprised to hear this from a 23 year old, card-carrying Liberal Democrat but I am a veteran eurosceptic.
Such a veteran in fact, that my views on Brexit have barely shifted an iota since around 2014 when I was a Tory-voting Brexit agitator. I can forgive any raised eyebrows at this point since four years doesn’t really sound like enough time to be considered a veteran anything, let alone a sceptic of an organisation Britain has been a member of for over forty years.
And yet the eurosceptic movement has shifted in leaps and bounds towards an ever hardening position with every bit of strength it gained in the established political parties, government and the media. Theresa May’s red lines are perfect examples of this hardening of Brexit — it was even the final straw that led me to join the Liberal Democrats. When it came to Brexit, May’s Tories have become even more extreme on Brexit than UKIP were only a few years ago.
Don’t believe me? Check out this one and half minute video which showcases a plethora of Leave figures (including big names like Nigel Farage, Daniel Hannan and Aaron Banks) defending Norway, Switzerland the single market:
These are positions which are now too toxic and Remain-leaning even for the Remain voting prime minister and (supposedly) remain voting, customs union-backing Labour leader.
So funnily enough, I (a eurosceptic) am now suddenly on the far Remain side of the Brexit debate by supporting what I’ve always wanted: British departure from the European Union in favour of membership (at least in the medium term) of the European Economic Area (Single Market) and rejoining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), like Norway.
In the weeks and months of hardening public discourse on Brexit, many of my Remain voting friends were quick to point out to me that “of course it’s going to be a hard Brexit, what did you expect?” and many of them (particularly within the Conservative party) were more than happy to push through an agenda which risks all the economic woes they were only campaigning against two summers ago. I took a gamble considering what were the likely options of the time and unfortunately didn’t forecast the “re-Leaver” phenomenon unfolding before us — as well as the marginalisation of Remain figures in both the Conservative and Labour parties.
In my defence, my gamble wasn’t exactly uncalculated. I was heavily influenced by the writings of Roland Smith on this platform and on the ASI’s site. The argument that this would be the type of Brexit likely to happen was based around a few observations:
- The majority of both the parliamentary Conservative Party and parliament as a whole publicly backed Remain
- The prime minister and his likely replacement backed Remain
- The result of the referendum was bound to be close if Leave won (and was at a 52/48 split)
- The short 2 year frame of the article 50 process would mean that anything that isn’t “off the shelf” like EFTA/EEA option would be incredibly difficult to fulfil
- The economic facts of life would lead the Conservatives, a supposedly free-market and cautiously conservative party to keeping EEA membership at all costs
With all this considered, it was worth a punt on my end to answer this binary referendum question on the side of Leave. And yet despite this, the vote was interpreted narrowly within the confines of UKIP policy and Vote Leave’s promises despite the fact that a considerable portion, as much as 20%, of Leave voters wanted to remain in the Single Market, meaning the mandate for a hard Brexit is questionable at best.
The Brexit we’re facing right now is pretty different from what voters were considering in the polling booth and certainly different from the views of eurosceptic academics and figures over past two decades.
Despite claiming that a Norway option, or “Flexcit” is dead, Roland Smith has a great article summarising this option better than I can. What I will add however, is a recognition of a gap in the market of ideas for the Norway option to prosper, particularly at this point in time. I think (considering the following) it is very possible that we can hear it being re-articulated after being trashed by both Leave and Remain sides in the time since Brexit. Strangely enough, it somewhat parallels my original situational reasons for voting Leave:
- Conservative aims and concerns can be dealt with in the Norway option
We’re already seeing several Tory rebels banding together, with more confidence, towards retaining single market and/or customs union membership. With the help of Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP- this is likely to result in some humiliating Commons defeats by the government on the backdrop of already present defeats in the Lords. What I believe is stopping more Remain-voting Tories towards rebellion is a combination of loyalty to the party line, Leave-voting constituents, the need to tackle immigration and other factors.
Rather than risk a small group of Tory rebels “sabotage” Brexit led from the opposition benches, more pro-Single Market Conservatives should proudly support the Norway option as being consistent with expanding international trade, shedding the vast majority of EU law (while keeping the little ones that actually cut red tape in the long run), reducing Britain’s contribution the EU budget, keeping the economy strong, and lessening a lot of headaches around the Irish border. Even immigration (which can appear a stumbling block for EEA advocates) can be tackled through the Emergency Brake system and freedom to alter migrant benefits. Remain-voting Tories shouldn’t fear that they’re failing their constituents if the Norway option is argued properly.
- Theresa May has already softened up and she can probably soften up a little more
May has already conceded to allowing some ECJ jurisdiction in certain cases, some continued payments to the EU for continued schemes and likely some form of customs partnership with the EU. Changing the UK’s negotiating position towards the Norway option would therefore be less of a radical shift than when Theresa May announced her red lines. Remain-voting and pro-Single Market Tories shouldn’t be afraid to push the prime minister’s hand, especially to outflank Labour on their support of the customs union which certainly would lock Britain into an awkward trading relationship which could arguably derail Brexit altogether.
- There is more popular support for the Norway option than most think
As pointed out previously, there have been majorities polled for remaining in the single market. But crucially, I think many Remain voters do not have the appetite for a second referendum nor rejoining the EU. The Norway option isn’t perfect but has the capacity to unite the British public; If Norway itself is anything to consider, a strong and continuous opposition to EU membership shows that most Norwegians are somewhat happy with their current arrangements. So long as Britain saves on membership payments, can strike independent trade deals, and be able to inflict draconian limits on migrant benefits- it won’t be ideal, but the British people can live with it and would likely prefer it to EU membership.
- Time is running out, so let’s get something off-the-shelf
The two-year Article 50 window has proven itself to be a mad dash to complete a very complex agreement. It is uncertain whether things will conclude on schedule when something as elementary as customs arrangements is still being debated by the Cabinet less than a year before our March 2019 exit. Adopting a Norway-style agreement will give the EU something tangible to work with, something set in stone within various treaties and agreements with existing EFTA nations and bide time for Britain to get something more bespoke long term if we want it. This can quickly become the UK’s best alternative to no agreement. Despite Theresa May’s slogan that “No Deal is better than a bad deal” a Norway Brexit is quickly becoming more palatable than a bungled Brexit.
- The Conservatives rely on good economic performance to stay in power
The 2017 election was an enormous shock to Theresa May and the whole country, as the Conservatives lost a majority in parliament due to a resurgent Corbyn Labour. 2020 looked like an easy Conservative win, but 2022 is no longer such a certain bet for the Conservatives. If the economy begins to slump (or enter recession) following Brexit in 2019- there isn’t much room to stop Labour capitalising on a failing economy with a ticket straight to number 10. Conservatives who aren’t deluded into thinking that leaving the single market won’t have a negative impact on the economy can be tempted to play it safe and keep the economy strong to avoid Corbyn winning in 2022. I think it is safe to say that many Tories would prefer a soft Brexit under their control than risk Labour or a rainbow coalition getting into power and undoing the legacy of Brexit.
It will be interesting to see if the Norway option begins to gain traction some way or another. Rather than being agitated by the weird combinations of Labour backbenchers, fellow veteran eurosceptic Peter Hitchens or the Adam Smith Institute — a liberal, EFTA-based Brexit can finally be argued as the acceptable compromise in Britain’s national conversation.