Mrs May’s government, without a practical Brexit plan, has created a mess and time is running out. Without a practical solution to the soft border in Ireland there can be no Transition Deal and, therefore, no Withdrawal Agreement.
Without that, the UK leaves the European Union (EU) on 29th March 2019 with no arrangements in place to continue trading with the Single Market (Internal Market or wider European Economic Area, EEA). Such a situation (often called ‘falling off a cliff edge’) would be hugely disruptive to existing highly integrated trade with the EEA and impact the wider UK economy.
However, should the government succeed in getting the EU to accept its proposed solution(s) to the Irish border and to wider trade with the EU, the outcome is likely to be Brexit in name only. Worse, the UK would become a powerless temporary then a permanent EU Vassal State under increasingly arduous EU imposed conditions, such as sacrificing the UK fishing industry, surrendering UK defence and defence procurement to the EU, paying substantial amounts into the EU budget, accepting a continuation of free movement (uncontrolled EU immigration, with extra rights for EU citizens), unconditional compliance with all existing and future EU laws, remaining under the EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Yet this unwanted situation is of Mrs May’s making by her seriously reckless decision, first mentioned in her Lancaster House speech, 17th January 2017, of leaving the Single Market. Whilst leaving may be desirable in the long term, it is hardly practical now and her proposed solutions of mutual recognition of standards and a free trade agreement look increasingly unrealistic and counter-productive. Her wishful thinking, dithering and failure to understand how the EU and EEA works, have only made matters worse.
Many of the problems Mrs May has created can be solved by remaining within the Single Market (even temporarily) via a different, more flexible route. Such a route is available if we re-join The European Free Trade Association, EFTA, assuming they would have us back. Whilst this cannot be taken for granted, it would be advantageous to the existing EFTA/EEA countries (Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein – Switzerland is outside the EEA) giving the overall grouping greater robustness. The EU could accept this is an option to achieve an orderly Brexit.
Criticisms of EFTA/EEA (aka The Norway Option) can often be resolved through research using original or reputable sources via the internet (e.g. here). However, there will always remain the opportunity for the EFTA/EEA option or any other suggestions to be misrepresented by the unscrupulous or ignorant.
Originally set up by the UK, EFTA it is not a stepping stone to EU membership or itself an associate membership of the EU. EFTA existed before the creation of the Single Market. However, EFTA countries can participate in the Single Market on the basis of the EEA Agreement.
The basic EEA Agreement is amended from time to time (through additional Annexes and Protocols) as it applies to each of the EFTA members. It is not a ‘one size fits all’ and is customised to fit each nation’s requirements. Thus we could get a bespoke agreement by taking and amending the existing ‘off the self’ versions.
Article 112 (the Safeguard Measures) of the EEA Agreement provides a mechanism for the UK unilaterally controlling immigration from the EU. Similar wording has already been copied by the EU into their draft Withdrawal Agreement (Article 13, Protocols relating to Northern Ireland) effectively allowing the EU to unilaterally limit immigration into the EU from the UK.
The EU acquis (or body of laws) relevant to trade comprises about 25% of the total EU acquis and in 90% of cases reportedly originates from higher (global) bodies. We would need to comply anyway in order to trade elsewhere or leave organisations such as the World Trade Organisation. The rest of the EU acquis does not apply unless we choose to adopt any which we could modify as required.
It is membership of the Single Market (or wider EEA) and not membership of a customs union that delivers near frictionless trade. This is because each member is working to common standards and processes (harmonised) for product, production, market surveillance and conformity assessment under a centralised system of bureaucratic control by the EU. The EU’s Guide to the implementation of directives based on the New Approach and the Global Approach explains what applies to many products.
Accessing the EEA from outside its external borders involves complying with regulations, inspections and testing, processes and procedures, external tariffs, customs checks/clearance, VAT etc. intended for dealing with ‘third countries’. These provisions, effectively border controls, also manage safety and other unacceptable risks to EEA Members States, consumers and enterprises involved with ‘imports’ and are sometimes protectionist.
There also need to be arrangements to control diseases and parasites etc. in imported livestock, products, plants, packaging etc. from ‘third’ countries. According to EU law, products of animal origin (meat and meat products) imported into the EU must be inspected (sanitary checks) at Border Inspection Posts (BIPs). For products of plant origin (for plants and plant-derived foods) phytosanitary checks are required at Community Entry Points (CEPs, Designated Ports of Entry).
A mechanism exists for EFTA members to participate in shaping decisions by the EU described here. Unlike EU Member States, EFTA members also freely participate in global bodies helping to form standards and practices before these are passed down to the EU for implementation.
For EFTA countries, EEA membership is effectively free although they do ‘voluntarily’ contribute to the specific agencies they participate in and to development grants. We could pick and choose.
The EFTA Court is independent of the ECJ although it can take into consideration or follow ECJ rulings. It does not take precedence over national courts enabling the UK, if we so choose, to ignore any of its judgments. The European Commission could object and we could then ignore them too.
Article 127 of the EEA Agreement covers the process which involves giving 12 months’ notice. Unlike leaving the EU, no payments and negotiations are required.
The EFTA/EEA option and Brexit debate in general has often suffered from misunderstandings or errors and mischievous misrepresentation effectively inhibiting rational discussion. The following are useful sources of research information: Brexit Reset, Eureferendum.com, various posts on Campaign for an Independent Britain and affiliates. For consequences of a No Deal situation, see the EU’s Notices to Stakeholders under Brexit preparedness.
The EFTA/EEA route at least as an interim measure could salvage the faltering Brexit process. It would facilitate leaving the political, centralised, anti-democratic construct of the EU whilst still retaining (and expanding) almost frictionless trade. It could also provide a spring board for a highly successful trading relationship for independent sovereign nations in Europe.