Owen Jones is honest enough to admit that his support for “Norway Plus” is born out of desperation. But despair should not lead us on the left into making bad choices that would have lasting consequences when there are still better options.
Many on the left are now coming face-to-face with the reality that Brexit is a deep and fundamental process that will affect the United Kingdom for generations to come. The dawning realisation that it promises to reshape British public life permanently in favour of the right is pushing people to find some version of ‘Brexit lite’ that would allow a post-exit return to business as usual. But there is no such option and there is no middle road.
Brexit dominates British political life precisely because it is such a profound decision. There is no post-Brexit – whatever sort of Brexit it is – that will allow things to return to the ‘normal’ of what Owen Jones calls ‘anti-establishment politics’. After Brexit, the establishment will be represented as anyone who wants to preserve or protect freedom of movement, to maintain European-wide labour and environmental standards, to keep any sort of European-wide legal space, as much for human rights or kettle wattage, or who argues we should act together against Russian or Turkish autocrats or Hungarian soft fascists.
Not since Enoch Powell ignited the racist bonfire with his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech has the hard right had such a commanding platform as Brexit. If history teaches us anything, it is that we do not beat the extremists of the right by pandering to them or by offering them a few choice cuts and hoping they will then forget their demand to get their hands on the butcher’s knives.
The ‘Norway Plus’ proposal fails for practical reasons too. Far from being likely to persuade those who feel decisions are currently being taken in the interest of a narrow elite that the opportunity for a radical Labour government to take the country in another direction is opening up, a ‘Norway’ Brexit would mean permanently giving up – not sharing – sovereignty across vast areas of labour, economic and environmental policy.
It would thus only intensify the culture war of which Owen complains. For we can be sure that populist demagogues on the right like no argument better than the one that suggests bad things happen not because of their politics and decisions but because foreigners have the whip hand.
Owen Jones says that his proposal would at least mean the UK would recover control of farming and fishing. But not even that can really be guaranteed. Norway is outside the common fisheries and agriculture policies, but it is outside the customs union too. Nobody can know just how compatible customs union membership is with staying out of either: for instance, if we use botanics to make medicines, how are they governed? This is just the sort of argument that could see ‘Norway’ turn into ‘Neverland’ as the rows, negotiations and renegotiations go on for ever.
On top of that, the customs union is governed by the European Court. We can be certain that there is no way the EU are going to abdicate that: there is a reason that a union of nation states with widely different histories, politics and parties holds together and it is an absolute commitment to the court’s supremacy.
Even now, Norway is subject to the extra-national jurisdiction of the EFTA Court, a body with the principal duty of translating the decisions of the EU’s court into binding rulings on the EEA countries. That includes state aid rules. Norway’s extensive use of state aid is a sign of the flexibility of the EU’s rules, not a sign we need to escape from them. Investment, like austerity, is at heart a political choice and it’s wrong to think that somehow foreign interference is the key question here.
Owen is vague about what applies to immigration if we follow Norway, probably because he would be embarrassed by the idea of being seen to argue for an end to freedom of movement. In this case, though, he need not be: the EEA countries (with the sole exception of the micro state of Lichtenstein) are legally bound by the same free movement rules as the EU members. There is no credible argument in favour of ‘Norway’, plussed or otherwise, based on immigration.
On the budget, the precise level of the British contribution would have to be negotiated. There is nothing to suggest that our payments would be significantly reduced, however. Without the budget rebate we currently enjoy – in rules set in stone – we could quite easily end up paying the same or even more than now.
There is one final, and rather significant, problem with the Norway option: the Norwegians don’t want us. They are polite about it – as befits a country where admiration of Britain runs deep – but they have no intention of letting the space they have carved out for themselves in EFTA and the EEA be filled to overflowing by the economic equivalent of a ten-tonne gorilla in the form of the world’s sixth largest economy.
Whether we like it or not, that objection constitutes a veto. A veto every bit as powerful and final as those we have in the EU as members. Perhaps, after all, we would be better to ask the people if they’d prefer to keep them instead of begging Oslo to change its mind?
Jo Stevens is MP for Cardiff Central.