The actions of Parliament last week were a blow to the credibility of our democracy. We have signalled to the world that we are too scared to leave the EU without its permission, and we are about to send our Prime Minister to Brussels on her hands and knees to beg for an extension.
For those like me who voted to leave without a deal if necessary, it is no good sobbing over the fact that we lost a line-out and that those who want to thwart the referendum result are running away with the ball. We need to regroup and get back in the game.
We have been arguing about Brexit solidly for over three years now and our system cannot take another two years of this, especially if there is a long extension to article 50. What is needed now is a way to secure early closure on this debate and to expedite our departure from the EU.
There is a simpler and swifter way to leave the EU. We should rely on our existing legal rights and obligations as a signatory to the European Economic Area (EEA) and switch to a relationship similar to Norway. The UK is a party to that agreement, and the Government took a conscious decision last year not to give twelve months notice to leave the EEA, as is required under article 127 of that agreement.
First, we would agree to a stand-still arrangement with the EU for a transitional period of nine months, during which we would dynamically align all of our regulations, so that there would be no need for the EU to put in place border checks.
We would then immediately apply to join the so called EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement. The UK invented the idea of EDTA in 1959 as an alternative to the EU. We could have friendship and cooperation but not get subsumed into the political structures of the EU. Initially we built an alliance of seven countries including Denmark, Sweden, Portugal and Austria but we abandoned them and caved in to those who thought we should join the EU.
Returning to full EFTA membership would take six-nine months to complete but joining the necessary surveillance and court agreements to make the EEA operable could be agreed within three months. The standstill agreement on regulatory alignment would become a bridge to somewhere (i.e: EFTA) rather than an open-ended continuation of this exhausting debate.
Under the EFTA approach we can settle this debate now rather than condemn our country to years more argument about Brexit. It removes the backstop, since article 127 of the EEA means we already have an existing legal right to terminate our membership of it with 12 months notice. We would avoid having to negotiate a “future partnership” with the EU, and fall back on the provisions of an existing treaty to which we are already a party. We would be out of the Customs Union and have an independent trade policy, but part of a ready-made comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU. We would have an independent agriculture and fisheries policy. There would be no need for a two year “implementation period”. Finally, it delivers on the referendum result, since the 1972 European Communities Act would be repealed on time.
As parliament wrestles in these desperate last days for a way out of this maze, the so called Norway option looks increasingly attractive as a way to solve the political crisis quickly and deliver Brexit on time.