Emma Reynolds: As May parrots meaningless mantras, Labour looks to Norway for what Brexit might mean


Norwegian Parliament

Although the prime minister and her ministers have spent the last few months parroting the mantra “Brexit means Brexit”, this is simply a meaningless tautology. The British people voted to leave the EU for many different reasons and Brexit could take many different forms.

That’s why I have established a regular group of backbench Labour MPs, who voted remain but who accept the result of the EU referendum, to discuss the implications of the outcome and how the negotiations should be approached. 

Future discussions will be held with a number of ambassadors, former European commissioners and experts. The “Norwegian model” was often discussed during the referendum campaign. It seemed appropriate therefore to invite the ambassador of Norway, H.E. Mona Juul, to our first meeting to discuss her nation’s relationship with the EU.  

There have been two referendums in Norway about the question of EU membership: in 1972 and 1994. Both results were close and in the most recent referendum, the “no” campaign won with just over 52 per cent of the vote.  

Unlike the UK, Norway had a well-considered, post-referendum Plan B. It joined the European Economic Area (EEA) and had already been a member of the European free trade area since the 1960s. As a member of the EEA, alongside Iceland and Liechtenstein, Norway maintains the closest relationship with EU, short of being an EU member.

Norway has access to the single market but with a number of exceptions for sectors, such as agriculture and fisheries. As an EEA member, they accept the free movement of people. However, an emergency break does exist through the reciprocal right to suspend free movement in a number of limited circumstances. 

Norway is outside the EU customs union. This means they can negotiate their own bilateral free trade agreements with countries, but they do not benefit from trade agreements negotiated by the EU with other countries. Being outside the customs union involves more bureaucracy and increased transaction costs for businesses.

Some politicians and commentators complain about Norway’s democratic deficit with the EU. An independent study in 2012 found that in return for its access to the EU market, Norway had to incorporate approximately three-quarters of all EU laws into its own domestic legislation. But at the same time, Norway has no representation in any of the EU institutions. They do not fall under the direct jurisdiction of the ECJ, but the EFTA court takes ECJ rulings as legal precedent. 

While Norway makes no direct contribution to the EU budget, it does make a financial contribution through regional grants. Between 1994 and 2014 this amounted to €3.2bn, and for the period 2014 to 2021 will amount to €2.8bn. These grants are to reduce economic disparities within the EEA area and go to EU member states mainly in central and Eastern Europe. 

Finally, Norway’s EEA arrangements don’t involve justice and home affairs policies. However, they have made separate agreements with the EU on security measures such as the European Arrest Warrant and membership of Europol.

In summary, Norway’s relationship includes access to the single market, compliance with the majority of EU legislation, free movement of people and financial contribution through regional grants. It is clear that the British economy is very different to Norway’s and that we are seeking a bespoke deal. However, it’s vital that we seek to better understand the possible options available, their pros and cons, and the trade-offs, as we scrutinise the Government on their negotiating strategy.  

Emma Reynolds is Labour MP for Wolverhampton North East and a former shadow Europe minister.

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