Friday, 8 April 2016

No, we don't want to "be like Norway", but if it gets us out of the EU...

I watched the thoroughly repellent Ruth Lea on Question Time last night denouncing the Norway Option, laying down the law that we don't want to be a supplicant of the EU. It was said quite deliberately to try and close down the argument, or at least make it more difficult to advance that argument. And yet somehow, it is we pleb bloggers who are failing to cooperate.

The point of the EEA Efta route (Norway Option) is that it's safe. It is the one means available to us that guarantees the least disruption to trade and industry. The reason being that practically nothing changes - especially if, in the first instance, we adopt the entire body of EU law. As much as anything, that reduces the uncertainty of Article 50 negotiations.

What that means is on day one of being out of the EU things are no better, but no worse either. But we are out of the EU. By advancing that as the plan it takes the sting out of the scares and gives business no real right to intervene. Certainly no just cause. That then gives us all the time in the world to sort out which bits we want to keep and which bits we don't. It could take a decade or more, but there would be no cliff edge. The pace of change would be no different to the normal business of government.

Yes, this does mean that several cooperation programmes stay in place and so, yes, we will still pay into the EU budget. A good deal less. The savings will not be ploughed into the NHS. They will go into agricultural subsidies and whatever there is going spare will be diverted to opening up new trade avenues. And yes, that means more spending on foreign aid.

This also means we will still take laws from the EU. No we won't have a vote as such. But these concerns overestimate the importance of having a vote since we are very often completely outvoted anyway. More to the point, the EU is a rule taker, not a rule maker. Regular readers of this blog will know that most of the technical regulations of the single market are also global rules and adopted from global super regulators and standards bodies. It is on those bodies where our vote really matters, and it is there where the EU presently tells us how to vote and refuses us the right of opt-out.

In that regard it is an exaggeration to say that we would be a supplicant of the EU, not least since we'd only take a fraction of EU law. Having contacted the EFTA Secretariat, which administers the EEA agreement, they report that 10,862 acts have been incorporated into the EEA Agreement since its inception in 1992.

Very often, though, acts repeal other acts, and some acts are time-limited as cease to have an effect. Taking this into account, there are 4,957 acts remaining in force today. By contrast, the very latest count of the EU laws in force (today) stands at 23,076. As a percentage of that number, the EEA acquis of 4,957 acts currently stands at 21 percent. In effect, the EEA (and thus Norway) only has to adopt one in five of all EU laws – not the three-quarters that is claimed.

This process however is offensive to Ruth Lea and a great many on the leave side. They want all the way out in one single bound and want to pay nothing. In all honesty that's what I want too. I would like nothing better than to achieve full independence in under two years. But to imagine that can be done in such a short time overlooks the depth of EU integration. From food safety to air traffic control, from port customs to farming, from fishing to road building - very little is left untouched by the hand of the EU.

There are intricate and established systems for managing all of these things, some where there is obvious advantages in maintaining full cooperation, and then there are other areas we had no business giving up control of in the first place. As much as it's going to take time to work out what those are, it's going to take time to design replacements to meet the challenges of the modern world, and these will have to be time for transitioning. There is no way to magically extract ourselves, and a simple agreement of tariffs, as Ruth Lea and her ilk propose, is not going to cut it by a long shot.

All leaving the EU does in the first instance is effectively declare that from now on, we do most things our own way in our own time - with more say in how we do it. To me, that alone is worth leaving the EU. What it also means is that the UK joining Efta makes Efta the fourth largest trade bloc in the world. One more agile, more democratic and less restrictive. That is leverage we can use to renegotiate the EEA agreement including freedom of movement. 

As much as the EEA agreement does mean for the time being we keep freedom of movement, we will always have liberal visa arrangements with Europe and it would be a disaster to close ourselves off. Those who want full control of our borders seem not to realise how implausible and expensive that actually is. In practice we have never had full control of our borders and likely never will.

The short of it is that there is no sudden unplugging from the EU. If we left unilaterally it would be a hostile act and would create a state of emergency for the UK because all of our cooperation agreements that facilitate trade would come to an end overnight. It would be a mess. There is only one way to leave the EU and that is through and orderly negotiated, staged withdrawal over many years, and yes that means using the EEA as a departure lounge. 

Some fear that the Brexit process may stall and we are forever trapped in the gravitational field of the EU. Those are not entirely unjustified fears, but what we can say is that we will be out of the EU, we will have a genuine unilateral emergency brake on freedom of movement, we will have control over energy, fishing, trade, aid and agriculture and access to the single market on the same terms. We will also keep our academic cooperation agreements in tact. That alone is manifestly better than being a subordinate of the EU and I for one could live with that, not least because it's a good all round compromise that will satisfy the many who vote to Remain.  

That said, with an independent trade and aid policy, opening up entirely new markets, removing barriers to trade and making new alliances on the world stage, I don't see the Brexit process stalling - especially since the UK leaving the EU would mean the EU is free to go in its own direction without the UK being an obstacle. Best of all, it would be a real shake-up of Whitehall and would be a boot up the backside for Westminster. We need that now more than ever. 

This is not a question of "being like Norway". This is about using a safe, orderly and progressive means of leaving the EU that protects our interests while maintaining good relations with our neighbours. The hard-line eurosceptics can stamp their feet all they like with their delusions of instant departure, but ultimately they don't matter. It will be the civil service tasked with leaving and they will already be aware of the complexities and risks. This is the route they will most like take. They have already said as much. We can leave the EU, it won't cause the sky to fall in, and despite what the government says, we can have our cake and eat it.

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