Keep outside the EEA: debunking the mythology about the ‘Norway option’

Mentioning the European Economic Area (EEA) to Eurosceptics as an alternative to the EU can generate the sort of fisticuffs that you might have expected in fourth century Alexandria on questioning the formal nature of the Holy Spirit. The subject has not been helped by having long been masked by smoke laid from the funnels of Downing Street, seeking to discredit the ‘Norway Option’ as an alternative that might offer a better arrangement than our current EU terms.

So what is the reality? Who better to ask than the residents themselves?

A new paper published by The Red Cell explores its workings from a Eurosceptic Scandinavian standpoint. The EEA: A Warning from Norway seeks to strip away some of the mythology that still lingers, despite several prudent and well-reasoned research papers in recent years from UK campaigners.

It shows that the denigrations laid against the system by Cameron’s Downing Street betray a complete absence of understanding of how international trade mechanisms function (a reality which will be familiar to many BrexitCentral readers); but it also explores a number of less well-known but fundamental problems that are associated with the deal as they have emerged through case law.

It might be summarised as follows: the EEA is better than the EU, but being out of the EEA in a free trade deal is better than being in.

Friday’s decision in the High Court appears to shut down some last ditch rear-guard activity by Banzai Remainers. The court was invited to consider whether the withdrawal clause included in the EEA deal was another item that Parliament had to vote on. It was clear that the mechanism was included for the benefit of existing non-EU members, who otherwise would have to turn to the Vienna Convention default (which kicks in if a denunciation clause is not included in a treaty text).

A moment’s consideration would also have revealed that any lost court case made it far less likely that an EEA deal might become a smudged default (a jurisprudence equivalent of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ on whether it could happen or not). So the petitioners have lined up a massive own goal and made their objective, transitioning to final EEA membership terms, less likely.

Might the EEA still be considered a transitional option? It is plausible. It is possible that negotiations stall in a midst of fury and frustration. It is not beyond the realms of conceptualisation that a number of technical areas are tied together by capitals, untangling them takes time, but the goodwill exists to ensure that IT networks and paper trail systems under any new model are carried across. It might be tempting in such conditions to view the EEA as a practical temporary halt. Such circumstances are not optimal, nor are they guaranteed, but they are possible.

Some Eurosceptics might go beyond this, and argue that joining the EEA allows it in time to evolve and merge with separate international institutions, generating a true free trade mechanism for our continent. I rather fear this is as fanciful and shuffling as aspiring to reform the EU from within.

Hence the need for such a paper. It explores a number of the problems faced by those seeking to maintain sovereignty within the EEA system, and where the mechanics have demonstrably been unhelpful. The paper lists a range of examples that collectively prove the location is not a good long-term resting place. It may be a tolerable place to park overnight, but given the risk of being mired it shouldn’t be top of anyone’s agenda.

I am minded of the story of Alcibiades, the great classical statesman. As Plutarch tells it, he encouraged the citizens of Patrae to mimic Athens and build walls to its port.

Thereupon some one said to the Patrensians: “Athens will swallow you up!” “Perhaps so,” said Alcibiades, “but you will go slowly, and feet first; whereas Sparta will swallow you head first, and at one gulp.”

The risk arising from the EEA may similarly be less acute than the assault on sovereignty inherent in EU membership, but still exists even if operating in much slower motion. If it did come to membership, then there is a clear lesson for us: the corollary involves proactive vigilance and setting a second, fixed, deadline for moving on.

How swiftly it will take us to transition to a free trade agreement remains, for now, a matter of conjecture since the nature and mood of the negotiations remain hidden. Perhaps technical deals will be achievable within the necessary timeframe; I suspect that they are in a strong majority of the 35 ‘de-accession Chapters’ that will be under discussion.

With the remainder, depending on their number, the question may yet in turn arise whether the EEA is a suitable halting point. We should have a care to take it as meaning that it is without long-term risk or cost. Which, one might reasonably assume, also happens to be a key motive behind bringing the case to court in the first place.

(This article first appeared on the Brexit Central Website and is used by permission. See also this piece by Helle Hagenau n the same subject)

It’s time to establish what kind of relationship with the EU will be in the national interest

One of the myths put about by opponents of Brexit during the referendum campaign was that a Leave vote was a ‘leap into the dark’, or less energetically, a ‘step into the unknown’. While this may have suited Remain’s campaign narrative, suggesting that there was more fog around than could be found in a James Herbert horror novel was not a fair representation of the reality.

The truth is that a lot of work has been done on Brexit. But most of it has not had wide public recognition. That is not the fault of Eurosceptic thinkers and planners, but a counter-intuitive inevitability of our mass communications age – a matter of volume and noise, chance and choice.

It’s to improve the neon lighting that I have updated four major pieces of work from late last year. These were originally circulated in Eurosceptic circles by Better Off Out before the referendum started to motor. They are now more immediately relevant, especially for those engaged in restructuring the UK’s relationship with its EU counterparts, and have been further revisited to accommodate certain additional data that has since emerged.

The first in the updated series is being published today, for which I am hugely grateful to BrexitCentral. It’s intended to encourage those contemplating Brexit across Government to go back to brass tacks and think about what drove planners towards the EEC in the first place.

Simplistically put, the UK joined because key people concluded that the UK’s economic best interest lay in joining a developing customs union with economies that were amongst the best performing in the world, at a time of immense geo-strategic turbulence and threat.

We might usefully apply the same criteria today, though we would reach very different conclusions. Indeed, as the old Eurosceptic saying goes, if we weren’t already a member, we wouldn’t today want to join.

Looking more strategically at aspects of our relationship with the EU, there are several key components to the formula that I urge our diplomats and planners to reflect on afresh. The National Interest thus proposes a number of principles to help ministers and negotiators work out where the balance of interest lies. How close does the UK need to be with EU institutions? What areas does it genuinely need to cooperate in? At what point does Single Market affiliation start to add more costs that it saves? These are fundamentals that deserve to be challenged from scratch.

The answers to these questions will vary from country to country. The needs of the Slovakian economy (let alone the wider state) are very different from those of, say, Ireland. So this formula will carry separate significance for every nationality, and not just be of interest for Eurosceptic groups across the continent at that.

Reviewed dispassionately, the nature of all these variables puts the United Kingdom in a particular category that suggests a much looser arrangement is likely to be needed. That in turn implies that Whitehall has to be bold, ambitious, and to scan the horizon, if this country is to find its best relationship with the EU. Anything short of that will be at best a missed opportunity, at worst a strategic failure.

But we can’t get there without a reboot.

A problem the Brexit department faces is the starting biosphere, and the many streams and wells that have fed Whitehall ponds over the past decades. There has been too much of a monopoly on acquired wisdom fuelled by the Jean Monnet system – and its other EU-funded cousins, as we have seen in recent criticisms of the track records of some of our High Court judges.

This has had consequences less dire in the UK than in other states (a comparison that should be of some pride to our academics), but coupled with the EU’s immense PR machinery, it has still left deep marks on the base narrative.

Consider briefly the issue of the “Euromyth”, the media story that the Commission denies ever happened. As it turns out, as the source behind a number of those stories over the years, I can vouchsafe that many did indeed flow from genuine plans and proposals caught at an early stage. These were then, once they became public knowledge, subsequently and sensibly repudiated. Had they not been spotted, it is more than likely they would have become bad laws – again to be criticised, but at a point when they were beyond the point of easy repeal, and after causing millions of pounds of damage to the UK economy. (Unlike Will Straw, there was never a CBE for any Eurosceptic engaged in that thankless task, I might add.)

However, there is then a world of difference between saying a project that didn’t happen is a myth, and saying the Commission listened to the public’s concerns and then pulled the plug. Rather than ingeniously following the latter option, tellingly their press team resorted to the former. One is led to the conclusion staff do so because they believe their own spin, that nothing was happening. Eppur si muove, as Galileo might murmur before such inquisitors.

Couple this unhappy world of smoke and mirrors along with the complete strategic buy-in of government that has outlasted civil service careers, and one can begin to see how ingrained perceptions and interpretations might have become, and how a fresh appraisal by a new generation of civil servants can prove useful.

The baseline assumption across the Foreign Office has been that the UK’s national interest lay in EU membership, while lobbying to avoid the EU integrating too closely (or too quickly and perceptibly: it depended on whose notes you read).

Notwithstanding the entire Margaret Thatcher era, the hand of Heath still lies heavy on the Locarno Suite. While it has been exorcised by Thatcher from the rest of government, the Ghost of Suez still roams King Charles Street, wailing warnings of British decline. The policy response to that crisis was profound. Ditching EFTA was quite possibly the greatest strategic error since 1945. The 23rd June vote may have come just in time to allow a second model of European co-operation fully to re-emerge, an alternative with genuine prospect, more liquid in its form and thus less brittle.

In their review, planners need to go back to the foundation elements, reassessing what the national interest may be for any given state in its dealing with the EU, and how close its orbit profitably needs to be. Law drafters also need to grapple with the realities and complexities on the hierarchy of international standards setting (which has much less to do with the EU than most people believe). Business figures and City analysts need to acquaint themselves with what the default deals mean without the red tape generated just for EU suppliers and manufacturers and not for anyone else. In short, everyone in Central London needs to put the kettle on and completely rethink what trade agreements are there to do.

I choose to be optimistic. Our civil servants are intelligent, hard-working, patriotic people. They will tackle this task head on – if inspired to do so, and given the tools and leadership to be bold and innovative.

But four decades of assumptions need to be dumped across Government first, and across all levels of management. I hope these four short e-publications help achieve that vital national reboot, starting today with the base coding.

Fewer Politicians – one advantage of “Brexit”

You can swiftly judge the flavour of a democracy by its decision-making. Westminster requires its elected representatives to dash in person to the voting place, state their name to the tellers, and see their footwork published as a matter of public record.

By contrast, the European Parliament once saw an MEP wedge a baguette into the abstain button and wander off for an extended coffee. His voting pattern was probably one of the more enlightened that day. It was certainly the most consistent. It would also have meant he met the attendance threshold to pick up his salary. If nothing else, it provides new meaning to the term ‘roll call vote’.

The European Parliament provides an illusion of democracy. It is a deception, a screen, and indeed an apt mirror of the town in which it sits, and of the institutions for which it is supposed to provide at least notional oversight.

For 15 years now, Brussels has displayed what the Eurosceptic writer David Wilkinson first identified and styled “façadism”. As the city anticipated the arrival of new money after EU expansion, property developers took to gutting old buildings but keeping just the street facing in place, providing literally a front to the stripping away that was happening just out of sight. Something not dissimilar has been happening to Europe’s democracies. The old frontage is still there, but the inner workings have been ripped out.

There are two problems with this management approach. In the first instance, the people in this country overwhelmingly don’t want it. They want to live in an accountable state where they can complain and something gets done; or if something doesn’t get done, they can then vote and get the blighters out.

But the EU is not an accountable democracy. Transitional, proto-federal, corporatist, lobby-orientated, blob-driven: perhaps ‘Kryptocracy’ best describes it in a nutshell, though ‘Pantarchy’ has a certain appeal on several levels. The second problem that follows is that it’s a dysfunctional system too.
The European model is the result of some very clever people playing with a meccano set while their parents were too distracted to stop them expanding across the floor. The construction has gone outwards and upwards as opportunity has permitted, with gaps left for further completion throughout.

Democratic accountability has been one of these. Had the EU’s founders been able from the outset to deliver a programme of open integration, these voids would already have been constructively filled. Stops and balances, valves and safeguards would be in place and the European institutions would today at least be trusted. But of course the foundations were built upon the nation states and they require current parliaments to first be cemented over, which has yet to fully happen.

Perhaps the EU’s builders took their inspiration from Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the hulking beautiful anarchy of a building site that has long loomed over Barcelona, with its hard hat halls and worker ant vistas. If so, they might also usefully reflect on the metaphor of how the distracted archictect ended his days when he re-encountered the real world in the form of a passing tram.

Lacking democratic features, the EU has had to invent new ones. The flawed premise has led to some futile constructs. The Committee of the Regions provides a talking shop whose sole function has been to provide a shallow veneer of respectability. By buying-in municipal politicians, the Commission is able to point to individual reports as democratic mandate for their initiatives, while ignoring other products which are more troublesome.

The Economic and Social Committee, meanwhile, is intended to bring together corporatist partners and interest groups. Representation is largely by self-selection amongst the cognoscenti of the Brussels scene, since only full time insiders will spot the advertising of vacant national places (the FCO singularly does not help).

At €220m annually, these are somewhat expensive talking shops. EUObserver for instance has tartly noted: “In 2010, the 344 EESC members produced 181 opinions, which when divided with the annual budget means each opinion came at an average cost of €660,000, while no information is made available regarding how these opinions influenced legislation. If they did so at all.” The CotR has also been the subject of such serious fraud allegations it even triggered the emergence of whistleblowers.

The surfeit of politicians here is inversely matched by their retreat before three other wings of the Kryptocracy. Lobbyists and campaign groups can form a useful, potentially vital, adjunct to a democracy, particularly where their work is based on material that is independently produced. Scientific advisers can also supply fresh checks on potential institutional group-think that allows for assumptions to be challenged, an essential safeguard in a system so worm-holed with working groups that it even has a word for the structure and process: comitology.

The problem here is their interdependency. The problems of “Brussels talking to Brussels” and sock puppetry, so brilliantly exposed in papers by the IEA, exist because these privileged groups form a surrogate for actual democratic input. The EU, the Commission in particular, has yet to figure out that not all lobbyists – especially lobbyists it pays for – are necessarily representative, and that it needs to listen more to precisely those groups with which it disagrees the most and therefore shuts out.

The more I reflect on the democratic failings structurally underpinning the EU, the more I come to the conclusion that there is a choice between two absolutes. This building site and its façadism cannot continue – the lobbying of the unaccountable, by the unaccountable, for the unaccountable. Either MEPs fully assume their long-touted role, or MPs fully reassume theirs. There is no middle way. The former means the full adoption of a federal European state, with MPs becoming regional councillors in circumscribed roles. The latter route instead means the UK becoming an independent nation state, and cooperating with European neighbours in a manner which is transparent and accountable. There is no middle way. There is no tolerable status quo.

(This article first appeared on the Conservative Home website and is reproduced with the author’s permission)