“Norway option” back on the table?

By Kirsti Methi, Secretary General, European Movement Norway

The good reason for U-turn of Theresa May concerning the timing of the forthcoming general elections on the June 8, is that she needs a confirmed mandate from the British people on her Brexit-journey. The timing could not have been better for the Conservative Party to strengthen its parliamentary majority and to reaffirm support for Theresa May.

The true reasons, however, is that Theresa May needs to legitimize her need to backtrack. It has become obvious for anybody involved in the Brexit saga that the hard Brexit-route is paving the way to hell for the British economy and complicating everyone’s lives in terms of rights and predictability for future choices be it business decisions or personal lives. To withdraw Great Britain’s membership in the European Union is one (dramatic) thing. To exit from the internal market is quite something else. It has severe economic and civil consequences for everyone and no one knows what type of future deal Britain will obtain with the EU, if any.

However, what has become quite clear during these “pre-article 50” months, is that a withdrawal from the EU “acquis communautaire” is not just very complicated, it is simply not in Great Britain’s interest. The British PM therefore needs to have an election result that gives leeway to a softer Brexit than what her January speech so boldly anticipated. Statements like “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain” are slowly fading away as the realities of the Brexit-negotiations have become more apparent. Less than one month after she has pushed the start-button for the formal Brexit-negotiations, she realizes that the name of the game is not “hard”, but something more flexible.

Prime Minister May has expressed that what Britain wants is to leave the European Union, but to stay closely connected to the EU in a sort of deep, comprehensive partnership with the “greatest possible access to the single market”. Well, there is in fact such a solution for Britain. It is the EEA-agreement – sometimes referred to as the Norway model or option. It is true that May in her January speech said that Britain does not seek to adopt anyone else’s model. But, plainly, how far is the EU willing to go in order to give Britain an especially tailor-made deal when there are existing deals that would accommodate the most critical concerns in the field of EU citizens’ rights and access to the internal market?

One of the major challenges of the EEA agreement in its existing form is the lack of access to political representation in decision processes and institutions. However, Britain’s goodbye to the EU is under any circumstances placing herself firmly on the sideline of European politics anyway. With the EEA-agreement, Britain can be a non EU-member, but with the insider rights to the internal market. So, if the main preoccupation of the majority of the Brits is to exit the EU, but retain the access to the internal market and to safeguard as many equal rights as possible for Brits, and EU-nationals, the solution is already there. The price to pay is compromising democratic standards in terms of not having a vote in the regulation of the internal market. Norway has lived with this type of arrangement for 23 years. Most people would agree that it is not optimal from a democratic point of view, but this is the price that Norway seems to be willing to pay. What price is Great Britain willing to pay with her Brexit-decision?

True, the EEA offers a couple of other major challenges for the British that need to be solved should this type of deal be put on the table. The question of free movement of people is both delicate and complex. The emergency break-principle negotiated by former PM Cameron in February 2016 did not suffice, hence Brexit. The question that openly should be addressed is whether or not there is a broader EU-case for evaluating the principle of free movement of people as it is practiced and regulated all EU-member and EEA-countries today in order to amend it?

There are speculations about the EEA as a transitional arrangement for Great Britain in the interim period between actually exiting the EU and before a new deal is ratified. This would indeed in minimize uncertainty and harm to citizens and businesses. However, the EEA option could also be considered as one concentric circle in the debate of EU reform. The EU has practiced multispeed for years as “exceptions”, “transitional arrangements” or “opt-outs”. The UK has been particularly good at this, and so has Denmark and in a few cases other EU nations on single issues. In times of badly needed reforms where responding to concerns of the citizens and adapting to changing political frameworks is a major preoccupation, the EEA could be a relevant model for those countries who qualify for EU-membership, but hesitate for various, but democratic legitimate reasons. The EEA agreement would then have to be adapted to accommodate the need for both sides to introduce or remain in a close, structured partnership that secures certain degrees of EU-integration. If this EEA-type partnership could fit into a new EU-architecture, the Brexit story could cater for a solution that serves both a group of European countries, such as Norway, as well as the EU itself. Instead of weakening the EU, Brexit could actually lead to more European cooperation in the broader scheme.