The downside of taking a reasoned, measured position in any political debate is that you tend to get ‘caught in the crossfire’, with purists at each end of the spectrum attacking your proposals because they pose a threat to their ideological obsessions. Try this with Brexit and you’re labelled a “traitor”, for all manner of reasons, all completely contradictory to each other.
But in spite of the occupational hazards, soon after the vote of 23 June 2016 it became clear to me that the only democratic way forward was to respect the result of the referendum whilst also reflecting the closeness of the outcome: 52/48 is a mandate for Britain to move house without leaving the neighbourhood.
That’s why I’ve campaigned passionately for three years for a ‘Norway plus’-style Brexit, now commonly known as Common Market 2.0. No route forward can possibly please everyone, but polling shows that this kind of Brexit is the solution that the greatest number of the public can live with.
I have always been open and honest about Common Market 2.0’s imperfections—as have other advocates, from Nick Boles to Lucy Powell, Seema Malhotra to Rob Halfon—which is why I found Anand Menon’s recent Prospect piece suggesting the Norway option may not even be possible so puzzling.
He claims campaigners for an EEA-based Brexit have somehow “skipped around the facts”, despite our 20-page pamphlet being completely honest about the model’s pros and cons and reflecting that we are the only cross-party group to have established a workable solution based on existing Treaties.
I’ll take each of Menon’s critiques one at a time, in a bid to knock some of the common misconceptions about Common Market 2.0 on the head.
More freedom than you think
First, Memon wrongly states that we fail to acknowledge the model’s limitations in reforming the free movement of people. Common Market 2.0 commits Britain to staying in the Single Market, thus accepting that the four freedoms would continue. But by leaving the EU and transferring to the EFTA pillar we would gain important new safeguard measures, through articles 112 and 113 of the EEA Agreement.
We have always been crystal clear that 112 and 113 could only be invoked on the basis of “serious economic, societal or environment difficulties,” as set out in the EEA Treaty.
Memon is right that Norway haven’t used the measures despite having higher net migration per capita in the UK—but he conveniently glosses over the fact that this has been Oslo’s sovereign decision, and that Norway is in Schengen whereas the UK would not be.
He also claims that triggering the safeguards would not be a “unilateral” decision, despite the word “unilateral” appearing in Article 112 of the EEA Agreement, and fails to recognise that—whilst the EU would have the right to initiate retaliatory measures—the country that has triggered the safeguards cannot be forced to re-open its borders in the event of negotiations breaking down. Article 114 of the EEA Agreement stipulates that retaliatory measures must be reciprocal and proportionate.
A debate on honest terms
Hardline anti-immigration Leavers must not be allowed to dictate the terms of this debate, because they wish to reduce immigration numbers to levels which would ruin our economy and public services.
But the EEA’s Treaty-based safeguards would offer peace of mind to the millions of voters who are troubled by the seemingly limitless nature of free movement.
The money question
Second, Menon questions our honesty about Britain’s financial contributions.
Again, our pamphlet is crystal clear that Britain would be required to pay around half of what we pay now (so less than £5bn), based on the per capita GDP calculations that currently constitute the formula for Norway’s financial contributions. (Plus, we would only pay for the EU institutions and programmes we choose to access.)
Third, Britain would have far more influence over the shaping of new EEA-relevant EU legislation than he and other critics of Norway often claim.
Under Common Market 2.0, only around 30 per cent of current EU law would apply to Britain, and we would have a veto over new laws. Menon plays this vital point down, despite Norway and Iceland derogating from EU law over 400 times between them.
Meanwhile, the EFTA court can diverge from the ECJ, even if it usually chooses not to.
What Norway makes of the UK
The fourth false claim the article makes is that the Norwegians don’t want us. The Norwegian Prime Minister, whose view surely hold far more weight than the Norwegian MP Menon quotes, has made clear the EFTA countries will “find solutions” and “welcome” our country should we choose to join.
More astonishing is the idea that the EU would block the move. Michel Barnier actually coined the term ‘Norway Plus,’ and it has been the EU’s Brexit of choice from the beginning, precisely because it is the option that would cause minimum disruption. Just take a look at the not-so-subtle hints sent to the UK during the EEA’s 25th birthday celebrations.
The misconception at the heart of Menon’s article, and of many other critiques, is that it assesses Common Market 2.0 in isolation from the other options. But we will never break the deadlock if we keep on taking absolutist positions.
There is no perfect Brexit or Remain option. With our communities polarised and government paralysed, Parliament simply must now step up. We must compare the relative pros and cons of each proposal, and then commit to a strong compromise that can begin to reunite our deeply divided country.