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Britain’s Efta option

Britain’s Efta option

UK exit would blaze a pioneering path

by John Petley in London

Mon 25 Apr 2016

If one asks British people why they support European Union membership, the answers are, for many, ‘to keep my job’, ‘because we need to trade with the rest of the EU’, or ‘I’m nervous about a step into the unknown’.

With so much of the debate revolving around economic issues, it’s easy to forget the EU is a political project. The aim of the EU is, and has always been, to create a federal superstate in which individual nations eventually lose their identity. As François Hollande, the French president, said in July 2015, ‘What threatens us is the lack of Europe, not the excess of it.’

There are, in the UK, very few true believers in this proposition. Polls conducted on behalf of the eurosceptic Bruges Group think tank have found that, given a choice between remaining in the EU or rejoining the European Free Trade Association, there is a clear majority for the latter – in other words, confining the UK’s EU relationship purely to trade.

This makes far more sense than adopting Prime Minister David Cameron’s February EU deal, which achieved nothing of substance. A vote to remain would still leave the UK an unenthusiastic member of a club committed to closer political and economic union. Outside the euro area and the Schengen agreement, we could never have a seat at the EU’s top table. In the words of Peter Lilley, the former Conservative minister, we would merely be ‘the appendix of Europe’.

The Efta option is a proven off-the-shelf alternative. Efta members Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein have full access to the EU’s single market via the European Economic Area agreement. This would allay the business community’s concerns and allow trade to continue without interruption. While far from ideal for a long-term relationship, it is much better than opponents of such an arrangement pretend.

Take the example of Norway. The country is widely consulted in the framing of EEA-relevant legislation which is what really counts, even if it does not have a vote. An estimated proportion of only 20-30% of total EU law (the so-called acquis) applies to Norway. Some are technical issues relating to trade, such as the order in which ingredients must be labelled on a bottle of ketchup.

Norway is not subject to the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. It cannot be fined by the European Court of Justice if it refuses to implement a directive. It is not liable for the debts of EU institutions. All in all, a much better arrangement than Cameron is offering us.

Some in the Leave camp have proclaimed that, ‘We could do better than Norway’. That is possible, but it would take time.

By leaving the EU, Britain would blaze a pioneering path. A divorce after more than 40 largely unhappy years is not going to be quick and easy. But the Efta route would allow us to make the parting of the ways as smooth and amicable as possible.

John Petley is Operations Manager for the Campaign for an Independent Britain. This is No.41 in the series.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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