It's time to forget about the fantasy of a Norway-plus Brexit deal – it would be so damaging for Leave constituencies like mine

The long and short of it is that Norway-plus doesn’t deliver on the claims its supporters make

Bridget Phillipson
Friday 18 January 2019 13:53
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How a second Brexit referendum might work

There is a lot of talk these days in the Labour Party about the need to respect the 2016 referendum result and bring the country back together.

In the real world people voted for Brexit for all sorts of reasons, many of which were contradictory. Some because they thought it would open us up to the world, some because they thought it would bring down immigration, others because they wanted to put a break on globalisation and still others because they wanted to see more migrants coming from outside Europe. There was one conception of what it meant to vote Remain, but there were many, many conceptions of what it meant to vote Leave.

Satisfying all these contradictory motivations will never be possible, but as a potential answer Norway-plus does not work.

Under this plan we would stay in the both the single market and customs union, implementing European directives, accepting freedom of movement, executing the decisions of the European court but losing any meaningful say over all of this, while continuing to pay large sums into the European budget.

Last year I voted to keep the UK in the single market – Norway without the plus. We lost and the prime minister refused to budge, and that ship has long since sailed.

As a supporter of a Final Say and an MP for a city that voted Leave, I have sought to be honest with my voters about why I still think leaving the EU would be a bad outcome, above all for working people. I am used to having difficult conversations on the doorstep about Brexit, and it’s vital that we do this. People respect honesty and integrity even when they disagree.

I cannot stand in front of my electors and tell them I think that Norway-plus is the right outcome for our country. They can see its faults, just as clearly as I can; they would know I wasn’t being straight with them, just as clearly as I would. It has always been a patronising myth that Leave voters were stupid, and like everyone else they will see through the Norway-plus distraction in an instant.

I have to ask the advocates of Norway-plus: to exactly what problem do they think they are providing a solution?

“Taking back control”? It would leave us with less control than ever. Rather than sharing power as we do today, we would be surrendering it, wholesale.

No Irish backstop? No chance. The backstop will come with any Brexit deal we sign and given that Norway-plus is not some off-the-shelf arrangement, it is quite likely not to come into force for at least some time as the negotiations drag on.

More accountability and democracy? It would not just be our ministers who would be excluded, we would lose our MEPs, councillors would be thrown off the Committee of the Regions, trade unionists excluded from social partnership. Norway-plus would make real the imagined EU of anti-European myth – remote and unaccountable.

New trade deals with the US, India or Australia? Membership of the customs union – the “plus” part of this deal – means we will not even get the trade deals the EU signs or indeed on the terms the EU signs them. We will have to open up our markets to all countries outside the EU with whom the EU has negotiated trade deals on the same terms as the EU has but will not get the access to their markets which the EU will have in return. And, it is nothing but fantasy to think we would be allowed into the room as a third negotiator.

Anand Menon explains to Question Time audience the ramifications of a no-deal Brexit

A platform for the creation of a social Europe with a stronger and revitalised left? Sorry, but again no. We certainly should not mistake Norway’s strong and effective welfare state – a consequence of the decisions of Norwegian politicians – with its relationship with Brussels. Not surprisingly, quitting the EU will radically diminish and never strengthen any voice Labour might hope to have in reforming the bloc.

And what about freedom of movement? If that’s the issue then this is definitely not the answer. Only the micro-state of Liechtenstein has single market membership and restrictions on freedom of movement. And, of course, leaving the EU means leaving behind any chance of modernising the freedom of movement rules.

The benefits – supposedly – of this would be that we would leave the common agricultural, fisheries and foreign and security policies of the EU. In reality, it is dubious whether we really could quit the farming and fishing arena: Norway is out of them, but Norway is not in the customs union and its farming and fisheries imports into the EU are subject to tariffs and quotas. Telling the EU you want to opt out of their rules but won’t accept any restrictions on selling your products sounds like the ultimate “have-your-cake-and-eat-it” fantasy.

The long and short of it is that Norway-plus doesn’t deliver on the claims its supporters make.

But even before we get to that, there’s one problem: it is not on offer.

It is true that the EU offered, at the very start of the negotiations, to explore the Norway option and I voted for it on that basis, but this is not the same thing. The bigger blockage, though, is that Norway and the other EFTA members of the European Economic Area are simply not willing to see the UK crowd them out of the space they have fashioned over the last three decades.

We think of Norway as an oil-rich, wealthy economy. But Britain’s economy is actually eight times bigger. It is not difficult to see why they would see British EEA membership as closer to a hostile takeover than a merger.

I do not claim that giving people a Final Say, which I support, will magically unify the country. But I do think that, by offering a clear choice between staying with our current deal as EU members or leaving with the government’s deal, this is more likely to give us a settled decision than opting for something that might be labelled as Brexit but leaves everyone unhappy.

This country desperately needs change. We need a world where the benefits of automation mean more interesting work for everyone, not mass unemployment; a world where your chances are not about your parents and school but about your willingness to learn and work; a world where having children doesn’t bankrupt you and their education doesn’t bankrupt them; a world where food is safe, lives are healthy, and old age is without fear. All of that is much easier to pursue and achieve within the EU rather than outside.

We have to be honest enough to say that, and not be afraid that some people might disagree. I don’t buy the idea that a fresh referendum will unleash some newly horrendous backlash. In the real world, people are not angry at being asked for their views. Those who feel the same can vote as before; those who have changed their minds can change their votes. A far-right fringe might feel otherwise, but since when did we let the far right set public policy?

Our society is already divided: between haves and have-nots even more than between Remain and Leave. Only a people’s vote can sort out the mess the European referendum created, and leave the way clear for the next Labour government to start building the better, more equal society we so urgently need.

Bridget Phillipson is the Labour MP for Sunderland South

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