During the Napoleonic wars Norway sought to keep its options open. The rulers of the then joint kingdom of Denmark-Norway remained neutral between the two belligerent European powers of France and Britain in order to carry on trading with both sides. Fast forward 216 years and, in a historical echo, some Britons are looking to Norway for inspiration on how to pull off a similar European economic balancing act.
The “Norway model”, or some variant on it, has been cited as a viable destination for post-Brexit Britain. As a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) this wealthy Scandinavian land of five million people and an impossibly crinkly coastline has access to the European Union’s mighty single market. Keeping lines open to this enormous tariff-free level playing field for goods, services and capital is the overriding priority for many major UK exporters.
Yet Norway is not part of the political structures of the European Union. So no “ever closer union”, no pressure to join the single currency and no Common Agricultural Policy. And Norway is also free to strike its own bilateral trade deals with any other country, or even bloc of countries, in the world. It has control of its fisheries too. Norway’s waters are for Norwegians only.
So what’s not to like? Isn’t this the best-of-both-worlds European trade and political arrangement Britain should aim for?
Well, there’s a price attached to Norwegian-style access to the single market through the EEA. Norway contributes around €447m a year to EU Budget. The UK could expect to make a substantial contribution too; not as much as the £9bn annual net contribution it makes currently, but very far from zero.
And those who voted leave primarily because of concerns over EU immigration flows to the UK will also likely find much to object to about the Norway model. For as well as paying into the EU budget the country has to accept free movement of labour from the EU.
True, there is an emergency brake under the EEA settlement on immigration when “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties” arise. But this brake is only temporary and Norway has never applied it. Indeed, Norway has higher levels of immigration from the EU per head than the UK.
And then there’s EU law. To have access to the single market a non-EU country also has to play by single market rules. It is for this reason that Norway implements most EU laws domestically. Yet as a non-EU state it has no influence on shaping those same laws, or the evolution of the single market. Norway has no representation on the European Commission, no European parliamentarians, no spot around the European Council table of ministers.
So: continued payments to EU budget, continued free movement of people, continued application of EU laws but now zero say over the formation of those laws. “Membership without a vote” is how Jonas Helseth, a former Norwegian diplomat, describes it. That would seem to be a strange definition of “take control”, as advocated by Vote Leave in the referendum campaign.
But what is “control” anyway? Back in the early 1800s the British decided Norway wasn’t really neutral at all, despite their best efforts to ride out the tempest of European power politics. A choice was forced on them and the Royal Navy ultimately blockaded Norway’s ports causing a famine in 1812 that is still remembered with a shudder in the country to this day.
What the Norwegians and most other mainland European nations have learned, the hard way, is that splendid isolation is usually an illusion. Nation states are inevitably affected by what their neighbours do and what is going on in their region, whether those are ructions in economics, strife in politics, or crises in the environment.
A country often secures a higher measure of control over its destiny by collaborating and, yes, by pooling a degree of sovereignty. How much sovereignty should be pooled is a fair question. So are questions around the transparency and accountability of the institutions that created and thereby empowered. Opting out can be an option, as Norway and also Switzerland have shown. But opting out is an option that comes at a cost: a de facto surrender of control.
A Norway-style trade arrangement for the UK is certainly feasible. It would please fearful businesses. It would satisfy the small but influential band of libertarian Brexiteers who have, for ideological reasons, fetishised a narrow definition of sovereignty and who are convinced a liberated Britain will be able to sign impressive new trade deals with the economic blocs of America and emerging Asia.
The majority of the 48 per cent of the electorate who voted to Remain could probably live with a Norway-style deal, albeit while wondering what the point of this whole disempowering revolution was.
The main barrier is those many millions who were induced to vote leave based on promises that quitting the EU would spell the end of immigration and who were sold a fantastical vision of a glorious return to the economic and social culture of 1950s England.
"You gotta dance with the one that brung ya” as the saying goes in American politics. The anti-immigration vote “brung” Britain to Brexit. And perhaps the most important question now in British politics is: how will these voters react if they don’t get their dance but are instead offered a remix of Norwegian Wood?
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies