Theresa May limped through her no confidence vote, but her dog’s dinner of a Brexit deal is still dead in the water.
May’s decision to defer the Meaningful Vote was not only the most anti-democratic act by a British Prime Minister in living memory, it was also utterly self-defeating.
Had May held the vote she would also have gained leverage in negotiations with the EU – proof that they need to budge. But perhaps most importantly she would have moved the debate along. She would have learnt much about the will of the House, and what deal she can do with Brussels.
But with May’s head still buried in the sand, and with Labour reluctant to table a No Confidence motion, we remain stuck in a state of limbo.
Fortunately, however, there’s a cross-party group of MPs that has a proposal which can dig us out of this constitutional crisis, and it’s called Norway Plus.
52 / 48 is a mandate to move house, whilst remaining in the same neighbourhood. By joining Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein in the European Economic Area (EEA) we would be delivering on that mandate by securing full participation in the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, thus protecting jobs and livelihhods, whilst leaving the EU’s political institutions and projects.
On the doorstep in my Aberavon constituency many of my older Leave-voting constituents tell me that they voted to join the Common Market in 1973, but somewhere along the way the EU became something that they had not voted for.
An EEA-based Brexit would re-set the relationship as a 21st century Common Market, thus steering a sensible, pragmatic and bridge-building course between the economic suicide of No Deal and the political self-harm of a second referendum.
Concerns about Norway Plus do exist – no Brexit is perfect. For example, some argue that EEA countries are not able to manage or reform the free movement of labour (FoM). But a closer look at the EEA Agreement reveals that Article 112 constitutes an emergency break on any one of the single market’s four freedoms, which Britain could pull unilaterally if, for instance, we feel that migration from the EU is causing us ‘serious societal or economic difficulties’.
This is a huge step forward compared to EU membership, because it ends concerns about the potentially limitless nature of EU migration. We would then seek negotiated long-term reforms to FoM, under Article 113. Article 114 gives EU countries an opportunity to take retaliatory measures, but only in a manner that is proportionate and in accordance with the original action.
Others worry that Britain would become a ‘rule-taker’, yet the EEA countries are not subject to the direct effect of EU legislation, so by leaving the European Court of Justice and joining the EFTA Court, which respects the will of national parliaments, we would be restoring power to Westminster. EEA countries also enjoy statutory rights to be consulted on the shaping of EU regulations and directives, through the EEA Joint Committee and the EFTA Surveillance Authority. EEA membership also gives full associate membership of all the key EU agencies, committees and working groups.
The ‘Plus’ in Norway Plus indicates the need for a customs union arrangement to solve the Irish border issue. This would require a derogation from the EFTA Convention and would be Treaty-based, meaning it is exitable unilaterally, thus enabling the backstop to fall away.
Labour’s amendment to May’s deal calls for ‘a permanent customs union and a strong single market deal.’ Well, Norway Plus delivers on that call.
By bolstering the EEA we would be playing a leading role in the creation of a new multi-tier Europe, an idea supported almost every European leader, and championed by President Macron. We would be adding our economic and political heft to an outer ring of countries who are not comfortable with the EU’s one-size-fits-all approach to integration, which is why both the Norwegian Prime Minister and the Icelandic Foreign Minister have offered Norway Plus their support. Meanwhile, Michel Barnier has already endorsed an EEA-based Brexit as a viable model for the future relationship.
So now it comes down to UK politicians.
Norway Plus would plug the UK rapidly and smoothly into a well-established model that would provide security, stability and certainty.
The morning after the no confidence vote both the Prime Minister and the Shadow Chancellor called on MPs to rise above the narrow tribalism that is poisoning our politics, and to act in the national interest.
That is precisely what the cross-party Norway Plus group is doing, and we hope that colleagues will join us, so that we can once again make the British people proud of our parliament: the cradle of democracy.