Wednesday, 10 February 2016

EFTA/EEA (or, can we afjord to take the 'Norway Option'?)

In a previous post I explained how, from initially holding quite strongly Eurosceptic views, I had come to believe that membership of the European Union does not, so long as the UK is free to leave the EU at any time should it so wish, represent a diminution of the overall sovereignty of the Westminster parliament. It merely involves a pooling of sovereignty in specific areas of policy in order to facilitate a sovereign decision to be part of a 'club' which brings with it the benefits of free trade within a single market.
Recently, however, I have been looking into the possible arrangements being put forward by those campaigning to leave the EU. One such option is for the UK to apply to become a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and so continue to trade within the European Economic Area (EEA). I have to confess that until fairly recently, although I was aware of the existence of EFTA and the EEA, I did not know much about how they worked, or, to be honest, which countries were involved.
I now know that the EEA countries - Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein - while not being members of the EU, have an agreement which allows them pretty much full access to the single market. In return they are obliged to mirror most EU legislation, including the requirement for freedom of movement for EU citizens. If this option were on the table at the referendum as the form that a 'Brexit' would take, I can see that it might be very tempting for those like myself (and, I believe, a large proportion of the UK electorate) who are in favour of the single market and open borders within Europe but wary of the more political aspects of the EU and of the concept of 'ever closer union'. (As things stand, most ‘leave’ campaigners seem to be of the view that the UK should negotiate its own specific trade arrangements with the EU rather than take advantage of the existing arrangements within EFTA and the EEA.)
However, as far as I can see, the only real advangtage of trading with Europe through the EEA would be that the UK would retain the ability to negotiate its own Free Trade Agreements with other countries - a role that it currently has to leave in the hands of EU trade negotiators. And some might say that this is not an advantage at all, considering the number of seperate trade deals that the UK would have to negotiate from scratch. There are a few aspects of EU law that we would not be required to implement but, it seems to me, the only particularly significant opt out is the fact that EFTA countries are not part of the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. (I must admit that, as a former Londoner who now lives in the Home Counties, about as far from the sea as it's possible to be in Britain, I really don't have much experience of farming or fishing although I understand that there are both advantages and disadvantages to EU membership for those engaged in these industries.)
The downside of EEA membership is that, although EEA countries are consulted about potential new EU legislation, they do not have a 'seat at the table' when such legislation is made. As one country in 28, the amount of clout that the UK has when it comes to decisions about the final form of new EU laws and directives is debatable but as one of the more economically powerful of the EU countries and with the financial importance that the city of London has, I suspect our influence is very significant. There is no doubt that there is always a danger of increasing centralisation with a supranational body like the EU. There is a kind of gravitational pull exercised by larger political entities over smaller ones, where the powers of the latter are always in danger of being sucked up and taken over by the former. However, to attempt to address this problem by leaving the club is not, in my opinion, the appropriate solution. As we have seen, unless we want to do serious damage to our economy by excluding ourselves from the single market, we will still have to abide by most EU laws whether we are members or not. The best way to ensure that the principle of subsidiarity is adhered to and that the EU does not encroach on areas that are best left to national governments is to foster a strong culture of democratic engagement amongst domestic populations, so that national governments know exactly how much power their home electorates will tolerate being ceded to Brussels and that they will be punished at the ballot box if they do not stand up to the EU where necessary. Without a strong democratic culture, it makes little difference whether we are in or out of either the EU, EFTA or any other political organisation - economic and political elites will have a free hand to act as they wish without any fear of being held to account.

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