Lesley Riddoch on Brexit: leaving EU is simpler than staying in

Every day a new Brexit catchphrase is born. Yesterday Brexit Secretary David Davis was 'pretty sure', but not 'certain', he would get a free trade deal with the EU. The Archbishop of Canterbury called for a 'cross-party' approach and was immediately slapped down '“ nicely of course '“ by foreign aid minister Priti Patel.

Britain is between a rock and a hard place and the only thing left to do is climb. Picture: Switzerland Tourism - By-Line: swiss-image.ch/Christian Perret

Meanwhile the “fair and serious offer” made by Theresa May on the contentious issue of EU citizens’ rights was dismissed within minutes by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte who said it left “a thousand questions” to answer. So far, so little progress.

Yet amongst last week’s crop of mots justes, two are worthy of attention.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

European council president Donald Tusk invited colleagues to “imagine there’s no Brexit” – expressing the pious hope that somehow, Britain’s desire to leave the EU would pass. “‘You may say that I’m a dreamer,’ he joked – but I’m not the only one.”

Tusk’s line might seem hopelessly naïve, but contrasted with the other line of the week – Chancellor Philip Hammond’s talk of “transitional arrangements” lasting perhaps till 2023 – it starts to look a lot more realistic.

Indeed the starkest choices – stepping back from Brexit or quitting the EU altogether – are starting to look like the only feasible ones.

Ah, but what about Hammond’s vision of a soft Brexit – a course also urged by our own First Minister?

The option said to be favoured by the UK Chancellor is membership of rival European trade body EFTA and through that membership of the “halfway house” of the European Economic Area – the “Norwegian” solution.

It sounds attractive – EFTA members Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein pay for access to the single market but don’t have to abide by the Common Agricultural or Fisheries Policies or enter the Customs Union. But there are pretty massive downsides too – especially for a country with as much of a conceit of itself, and enough distaste for being told what to do by “foreigners” as Britain.

Norway has agreed to accept all EU legislation and all future legislation regarding the single market, regardless of what it might be.

The Norwegian Parliament approved this while revoking any Norwegian legislation, regulations or administrative decisions that might be in breach of EU Treaty principles or EU legislation on the single market. Since 1994, Norway has had to swallow over 10,000 EU laws, amounting to more than six metres of shelf space. Entering the EEA doesn’t come free either.

The three EFTA/EEA countries support the 15 economically weakest EU member states by way of a membership fee for access to the single market.

Between 2014-2021 Norway is due to pay almost €2.8 billion – that’s thought to be roughly 92 per cent of full membership fees.

Of course, theoretically, Norway can say “no” to new legislation if it conflicts with national interests or is irrelevant to the EEA. But so far, this hasn’t happened – if Norway, Iceland, or Liechtenstein block an EU law, the EU can punish them. For example, Norway threatened to reject the EU directive on additives in baby food and the EU responded by threatening to throw Norway out of the agreement on veterinary co-operation.

Ultimately, Norway always gives in.

On top of that, there is a separate Surveillance Authority and Court of Justice to ensure the three EFTA countries fulfil their obligations under the EEA agreement.

Norway has also agreed to other arrangements, including the Schengen Agreement. Would that look like greater control of UK borders to fervent Brexiteers?

Indeed some call the EEA the “Nike Deal” because when it comes to EU law or regulations, Norwegian politicians are told to “just do it”. Can you imagine Theresa May or any of her likely successors managing to sell such a powerless, passive stance to a sceptical British public, let alone a Euro-sceptic Tory party?

There’s also the minor point that the Norwegian government is not keen on British membership and all members of EFTA must agree. After the Brexit vote last year, Elisabeth Vik Aspaker, Norway’s Minister for European Economic Area (EEA) and EU Affairs said: “It’s not certain that it would be a good idea to let a big country [such as the UK] into this organisation [EFTA]. It would shift the balance, which is not necessarily in Norway’s interests.”

Of course a small country like Norway may just be told to back down. Since Phillip Hammond’s talk of “transitional arrangements” last week, there’s much speculation in Norway that they will be bullied into accepting British membership by the EU – ironically enough a clear demonstration of the false “independence” that exists when a state reliant on EU trade isn’t a full member.

So what about Britain just joining EFTA then? Unfortunately, EFTA is almost an empty shell, since the EEA agreement came into effect in 1994, with a free trade agreement that covers only fish and agricultural products, and no services at all. Hardly ideal for a country desperately seeking financial deals for the City of London.

What about a Swiss-style bilateral deal then? It is gey wobbly. The EU has told Switzerland that it must rethink restrictions on migration or lose access to the single market. According to an influential 2016 report for the Centre for European Reform (CER): “The current Swiss model is broken and will never be accepted again by the EU.”

What about a bespoke free trade agreement with the EU? Once again, the EU will insist that the UK adopts future EU laws concerning the internal market to preserve a level playing field for all economic operators.

Or a customs union like the one negotiated by Turkey? Well it doesn’t cover services, UK-based manufacturers would have to comply with EU product standards and according to the CER: “Turkey does not have a say on the Free Trade Agreements the EU negotiates with other countries.”

And of course, if the UK gets a preferential unilateral deal, it may destroy the EEA and the EU as members reach for the same advantageous terms granted to Britain.

To say the UK is between a rock and a hard place is an understatement. Right now there is no way of enacting Brexit without leaving completely, riding the storm and hoping Donald Trump comes to the rescue. The only option is to face an inconvenient truth. Being outside the EU is a good deal simpler than leaving the EU. And sometime over the next year, a Prime Minister will have to bite the bullet and tell the British people so.