Response to Simon Nixon

Journalist Simon Nixon, Chief European Commentator at the Wall Street Journal and columnist at The Times recently wrote an article entitled ‘Norway option’ is not a long-term answer to the problems posed by Brexit in which he tried to rule out the EFTA/EEA model as an option for the UK after Brexit. 

Our colleagues over at the Leave Alliance were quite scathing of Mr Nixon’s piece:

No doubt they will be penning a detailed rebuttal to the piece (which we eagerly anticipate), but we felt we also had to respond to it. 

A problem with many journalists covering Brexit including Mr Nixon is a tendency towards brief articles full of assertions and shallow arguments.   A student who submitted articles such as this to his teacher would be derided, but if you are a ‘respected journalist’ you can churn out pieces like this and no-one bats an eyelid. 

If Mr Nixon and his colleagues were writing pieces about video games or what brand of jeans are ‘on trend’ this season, then we wouldn’t mind. But Brexit is the most significant realignment of British politics for decades and its coverage has been frankly embarrassing. 

Sadly, today’s media-obsessed politicians will (rather than defer to experts or anoraks) study pieces like this to gather the latest Brexit ‘talking points’ so they can appear to be knowledgeable about the subject.

How easily we can imagine them now, in some Westminster watering hole, repeating a mix of Mr Nixon’s words (and approved talking points from their whip’s offices which they have dutifully memorised like a trained parrot), while their paid acolytes nod and smile; as if their words were uttered by some heaven-sent Sage or Guru. 

However, we digress. The point is that these articles are important because the MPs who will be deciding on Brexit actually read them.

If the press had said after the referendum that that the Norwegian or Swiss examples were probably good examples to follow, the UK would be halfway towards emulating them by now. But instead, journalists demonized every single existing ‘model’ of Brexit.

This had a very clear effect on the government, who clearly felt that the moment they stated a preferred model, the press would jump all over them. So Mrs May initially was very vague about her plans.

Then, when pressed and prodded by journalists about what direction the UK would be headed, the government essentially ruled everything out, backing themselves into a corner.  

They ruled out being in the Single Market, and the Customs Union, the EFTA and EURATOM – insisting that they would negotiate a new deal that would somehow give them all the benefits of these agreements and bodies but with non-existent fees or far less onerous terms. 

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said today:

“Norway Iceland and Leichtenstein have chosen to be part of the Single Market, to accept their rules, and who make a financial contribution to European cohesion.

But I also think of Canada with who we’ve just negotiated a highly ambitious free trade agreement. Canada is not part of the Single Market and therefore has neither the opportunities nor the obligations.

I’m sure everyone understands it will not be possible for a third country to combine simultaneously the benefits of the Norwegian model with the weak constraints of the Canadian model.”

It could not be clearer – the UK does not have the time or goodwill from the EU to negotiate an entirely new relationship from scratch. 

Given the time already elapsed of the two-year article 50 period, the UK now has three realistic options:

  • Ask for an extension of the Article 50 negotiation period which is allowed under Article 50 (3). [Yes, it would require the other member states to agree to it, but as we are a net budget contributor and the EU doesn’t really want a Hard Brexit either, they would agree to it.]
  •  Concede that it isn’t going to be able to reach a deal, and use the time left to prepare the UK as best it can for a Hard Brexit. 
  • Attempt to emulate Norway, Switzerland, Iceland or Liechtenstein who enjoy unrivalled reciprocal access to EU markets, joint European science and research initiatives, co-operation programmes etc. 

Given these clear facts, why aren’t the government at least attempting the latter option?

A partial answer is because of pessimistic, crude articles like those of Mr Nixon, who decrees the Norway option to be a ‘fantasy’ despite the fact that Norway Iceland & Liechtenstein have been enjoying this exact style of relationship with the EU for decades. 

His article asserts that: 

“Simply as a matter of process, one cannot be a member of the EEA without being a member of EFTA — and one can’t be a member of EFTA while a member of the EU. So the UK couldn’t sign a deal to join the EEA until after it had left the EU”

This statement is densely packed with misinformation so let’s unpack it.

The UK is already in the EEA and technically has to invoke Article 127 in order to leave it. It is in everyone’s interest for the UK to remain in the EEA for at least the medium term if not permanently, as it would cause the minimum amount of disruption  for UK and EU citizens, importers and exporters.

Even in the unlikely event that the UK retained EEA membership ‘illegally’ for a month or a year (by somehow finding itself outside of both the EFTA and EU) who exactly is going to complain, and who are they going to complain to?

But this need never occur anyway, as the UK could reapply to join EFTA during the article 50 period, and sign an agreement to join when the UK’s EU membership expires, to guarantee unbroken or at least contiguous EEA membership. 

The EFTA convention does not set a timetable for a country to accede to it, it merely states that it will take as long as they decide it will take. If the UK (lets not forget, a founder member of the organisation) applies to rejoin before 2018, there is plenty of time for the EFTA countries to agree, even if they decide they need to discuss it in their Parliaments. 

Next, Mr Nixon states “the deal would need to be ratified by the EU, all 27 EU members and the three non-EU EEA members. That could take time.”

As we have already explained, the EU and EFTA countries don’t want massive disruption, they want to maintain as much of the status quo ante as possible – as such, they have no reason not to give such a deal the nod. 

Next he writes: “Nor is it clear why the UK would want to join the EEA.” Seemingly forgetting that the UK is already in the EEA. 

He goes on to say that: “The government’s policy is that Brexit requires the UK to take back control of its borders, its money and its laws. Yet EEA membership achieves none of those things.” 

Readers of this blog and our reports will know that we have detailed how the EFTA countries have equal or even greater sovereignty than EU member states – have special co-operation arrangements with EUROPOL, and pay less than EU member states:

The EFTA countries speak for themselves at global bodies such as the WTO (where currently the EU speaks for us).

Unlike the EU, EFTA has a unique ‘two-track’ trade deal system.
EFTA’s negotiators work to negotiate trade deals for the bloc as
a whole, while allowing member states to negotiate their own
bespoke trade deals.

An example of this is that all of EFTA has a trade deal with Hong Kong, but EFTA members Switzerland and Iceland have their own separate trade deals with China.

We have also described in detail how the UK as a member of Efta could better control or manage migration from other European states, while still protecting the rights of hard-working EU citizens in the UK. 

Despite its  flaws (which all agreements and relationships have), the EFTA model(s) are vastly superior to trading with the EU on WTO terms. Yet journalists only seem to either ignore or denigrate the precedents of our non-EU neighbours. 

With some honorable exceptions, most political journalists don’t want to delve into the complex issue of Brexit, preferring instead to stick to their safe-zones of ‘MP-SpAd personality politics’, the Westminster rumour mill and Ministerial spats. But unless they change their ways – and quickly – the UK will find itself quite unnecessarily – facing a Hard Brexit. 

Those few journalists who have got this far might now be saying: “okay, you may have a point that we have been critical of the various post-brexit options, but its not our fault that politicians have been too cowardly to stick their necks out and endorse a model, even if some voters (or editors) won’t like it!”

To which we can only reply – given that you know what many politicians are like, and the seriousness of Brexit – please, please can you try to do things differently? 

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