DOMINIC LAWSON: The ‘Norway Option’ has as much life in it as Monty Python’s dead Norwegian parrot
Who does not know the Monty Python dead parrot sketch? For the few of you who don’t: it involved the efforts of a pet shop owner to persuade a furious purchaser of a defunct ‘Norwegian Blue’ that the dead bird was actually in fine fettle, and that its rigor mortis was merely a case of it ‘pining for the fjords’.
Senior politicians are now attempting to bamboozle their ‘customers’ — us, the voters — with a no less outrageous sales patter involving the blameless nation of Norway.
Specifically, there is a concerted move to sell the virtues of the relationship Norway has with the EU as the best option if, tomorrow — or later — Parliament rejects the Brexit deal agreed between Theresa May and the European Commission.
At the weekend, Amber Rudd, just weeks after she returned to the Cabinet, declared that being a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) but not in the EU — Norway’s arrangement —’seems plausible not just in terms of the country but in terms of where MPs are’.
Pictured: John Cleese and Michael Palin in Monty Python’s famous dead parrot sketch
Although Ms Rudd, who was an ardent campaigner for Remain, is supporting Mrs May’s deal along with the rest of the Cabinet, this was a not-so-subtle hint of what she would actually prefer.
Then, yesterday, Nick Boles, the Tory MP who supported Remain but ran Michael Gove’s ill-fated campaign for the party’s leadership, and the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, published a joint article in the Sunday Times lauding the merits of the ‘Norway’ model — which they have both been pushing to members of their respective parties for many months.
They claim this would be a ‘fair compromise’ between Leave and Remain voters (as if the referendum had been a dead heat).
But among its parliamentary advocates, there is not one, as far as I am aware, who campaigned for Leave in the referendum.
There is a reason for that. Norway, like its fellow EEA members not in the EU (Liechtenstein and Iceland), is a full member of the EU’s Single Market. As a result, it must accept the directives of the Single Market.
These rules are decided upon by representatives of the EU member states in Brussels, having been set in train by the legislative machine of the European Commission.
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But, being outside the EU, Norway has no say in them and no vote.
This point was made most forcibly by the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg as a Remain campaigner in the 2016 referendum. He ridiculed the so-called ‘Norway’ option as ‘fax democracy’.
Norway, he explained, is part of the Single Market ‘but they have to wait by the fax machine for Brussels to send them the rules … we would be left powerless and voiceless, waiting, like the Norwegians, by the fax machine’.
That seems rather an insulting thing to say about the great nation of Norway, but it’s not something its own administration would deny.
As a Norwegian government official wrote ahead of the UK referendum: ‘During the past 20 years, we have incorporated more than 10,000 EU rules into the EEA agreement.
We have had little direct influence over these rules. The EU is under no obligation to listen to us. I have a hard time seeing the UK, with its global ambition, being comfortable with such an arrangement.’
Most significantly, in the context of why the British people, by a majority of almost 1.3 million, voted Leave, the EEA countries are bound by the Single Market’s guarantee of free movement of people.
The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) court, the little miss echo of the European Court of Justice and to which Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland are subject, could not be clearer.
The very first sentence of the court website states: ‘The aim of the EEA agreement is to guarantee the free movement of persons … in all 31 EEA states.’
The advocates of the ‘Norway’ model like to point out that there is provision for an ’emergency brake’ to suspend freedom of movement (and thus assert some control over immigration).
They always cite Liechtenstein. One of the most articulate proponents of the ‘Norway’ model, George Trefgarne, wrote on the ConservativeHome website that Liechtenstein had ‘successfully’ invoked a brake on freedom of movement ‘and restricts annual immigration from the European Union to between 2 and 3 per cent of its population’.
Amber Rudd, just weeks after she returned to the Cabinet, declared that being a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) but not in the EU — Norway’s arrangement —’seems plausible not just in terms of the country but in terms of where MPs are’
But when this exception was agreed, the EEA insisted it was in special recognition of Liechtenstein’s ‘specific geographical situation’ as a tiny, largely rural, statelet of just 38,000 souls, surrounded by EU nations. No similar argument could be put on the UK’s behalf, let alone accepted by the EEA.
Moreover, the 2-3 per cent annual immigration rate that Liechtenstein negotiated equates to between 1.3 and 2 million if applied to the UK.
I don’t see that being regarded as a triumph of immigration control by anyone in this country, whether they voted Leave or Remain.
Immigration aside, EEA membership would also fail to meet the other objective which led British voters to cast their ballots for Leave: to end the vast sums paid into the coffers of the European Commission.
Although Norway is outside the EU’s Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies (as the UK would be if it followed the same approach), its annual per capita contributions (according to the House of Commons Library) are only 17 per cent less than that currently paid by British citizens as full members.
And as Jean-Claude Piris, the former director-general of the EU’s legal services, wrote in a devastating recent assessment of what might happen if the UK went for the Norway option: ‘The EU would certainly refuse any British request to contribute less, proportionately, than the current financial contribution of Norway. On the contrary … the EU would probably ask for more.’
They would certainly be supported in that by the EEA trio of smaller states, who have no particular desire to be joined by the UK: they see us as a potential cuckoo in their nest.
Only last week, senior Norwegian politicians and business figures made clear how little enthusiasm they have for the obstreperous and massively bigger British nation joining them.
‘Norway Plus’, as an answer to our political crisis, is as defunct as Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue
Heidi Nordby Lunde, an MP in Norway’s governing party, was blunt: ‘I am surprised that after all these years it is still part of grown-up debate in the UK.
‘You just expect us to give you an invitation rather than consider whether Norway would want to give you such an invitation. It would not be in our interest.’
She added: ‘If, as I understand, UK politicians do not want to be ruled by regulations coming from other countries, why would they accept a country with 38,000 citizens, like Liechtenstein, being able to veto regulations that the UK wants?’
The one thing that the EEA states do have going for themselves, which the UK doesn’t, as things stand, is that they are outside the EU customs union, and have therefore been able to strike independent trade deals.
But wait: those such as Nick Boles and Stephen Kinnock are actually proposing something called ‘Norway Plus’, in which we would also remain in the EU customs union: ‘The nature of the Irish border means that the UK would need to join a customs union with the EU.’
Hilariously, they conclude that ‘Norway Plus gives the British people much more control than they have now’.
I won’t accuse them of lying, only of asserting the opposite of the truth.
That is actually the worst thing about Mrs May’s agreement, under the terms of the ‘backstop’ she agreed with the EU: we could be trapped indefinitely in a customs union over which we would have no say, let alone control.
But other aspects of the almost universally criticised backstop do preserve the commitments Theresa May made to the country: we would stop paying vast fees to Brussels, we would not be bound by freedom of movement, we would regain control of our fishing waters and we would not be required to mimic all future EU legislation.
Whatever the shortcomings of Mrs May’s backstop arrangement, it is infinitely closer to honouring the result of the referendum than ‘Norway Plus’.
‘Norway Plus’, as an answer to our political crisis, is as defunct as Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue.
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