On Tuesday evening one of us will vote against Theresa May’s deal. The other will vote in favour. One of us will vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s amendment — and for any motion of no confidence in the government. The other will vote against.
One of us is Welsh through and through — the representative of the Port Talbot steel-making community and proud scion of a tribe of passionate Labour politicians and trade unionists. The other is as English as hot buttered toast, the representative of Grantham in Lincolnshire, where Margaret Thatcher was born and raised, and a Tory moderniser with a career in business behind him.
Both of us voted remain. Both of us represent communities in which a clear majority voted leave. We both believe the 52:48 referendum result was an instruction to move house but stay in the same neighbourhood — and that it is now up to parliament to deliver on that mandate. We both have grave reservations about holding a second referendum because we worry that it will deepen the divisions in our country.
What has brought us together is our belief that the answer to the Brexit riddle lies on the back benches of the House of Commons. Last week we both voted to give the Commons control of the process, if and when the prime minister’s deal is defeated. Through a surgical strike by backbenchers from several parties, the Commons has ensured that it will be in a much stronger position to reject a no-deal Brexit and tell the government to go away and think again.
The next task is to advance a compromise plan that delivers the result of the referendum and puts the UK in a strong position to prosper and project our values around the world. That plan has been hiding in plain sight since June 2016. It involves making a specific and politically binding commitment in the declaration on our future relationship with the EU to move to a position similar to Norway’s or Iceland’s at the end of the transition on December 31, 2020. We would join the European Free Trade Association (Efta) and use it to remain inside the common market that binds the economies of the EU with those of Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein: the European Economic Area (EEA). This would give us full membership of the single market, which Britain helped create and which underpins so many British businesses’ trading success. But we would leave the EU’s political institutions, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, the common agricultural and fisheries policies and the EU’s drive towards “ever closer union”.
The nature of the Irish border means that the UK would need to join a customs union with the EU: either permanently, as Labour would like, or until new customs arrangements that underpin frictionless trade can be agreed with Ireland and the EU, as Conservatives would prefer. We would need to negotiate a derogation from the Efta convention to enable us to form a customs union with the EU.
Once the UK is an Efta member of the EEA and in either a permanent customs union or a new customs arrangement that delivers frictionlesss trade, the need for the backstop would fall away, without it ever having been activated.
Norway plus would recast our country’s relationship with the EU in a way that would better reflect our history, geography and politics. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s there was broad democratic consent for our engagement with Europe, which struck the right balance between political sovereignty and economic integration. The Maastricht treaty represented a big leap towards political union, and from that point onwards tensions began to form. The message that we take from the referendum is that voters wish to return to that pre-Maastricht relationship. In 1973 we joined a common market, and an economic community. It is to those strong economic roots that we should return, and Norway plus would help us do that.
Membership of EEA and Efta involves compromises and constraints. Some remainers say that we would have much more influence over the rules being applied to us if we were to stay as full members of the EU by way of a second referendum. Some leavers say that following single-market rules sells Brexit short and hardly amounts to taking back control. The truth is that Norway plus is a compromise that gives the British people much more control than they have now but protects them against economic loss.
Some claim the EU will never offer the UK the same terms as Norway and Iceland enjoy. They predict that the EU will deny us the ability to influence new EU regulations at an early stage and will stop us delaying the application of those we find unacceptable, or that it will prevent the UK from using the so-called “emergency brake” that would allow us to limit immigration for a period if numbers caused “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
But the EEA agreement is an international treaty to which the UK is already a signatory: in negotiating its consent for our move from one part of it (the EU) to the other (Efta), the EU cannot force us to forfeit the benefits of the treaty’s existing terms.
The greatest merits of Norway plus are these: it exists; the EU could live with it; the Efta states could live with it; it would deliver on the 52:48 mandate for a soft Brexit; it would give the UK strong single-market access and membership of a customs union, as Labour demands. Also, according to a study by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Rand Corporation, it is the option most popular with the public. That is why we are confident that a majority of MPs from both sides of the House will in the next few weeks throw their support behind Norway plus.
Co-written with Nick Boles MP