Although the Sunday Times yesterday devoted most of its magazine section to the EU question, nestling securely behind its paywall, this declining circulation newspaper left scarcely a ripple in the debate.
With so little to offer, even the sycophantic Conservative Home was struggling to find anything of interest to report, its Mark Wallace settling on an essay by Dominc Lawson, telling us how Switzerland had fared outside the EU.
Switzerland has come to represent one of two of the rival options for the UK in leaving the EU, the other being the so-called “Norway option”. But, while Wallace seeks to argue that “Switzerland shows that life outside the EU isn’t just possible, it can be better” – calling in aid Dominic Lawson – the idea that the Swiss experience can provide a model for the UK is so slender as scarcely to warrant discussion.
The reason why the model is of so little value is easy to explain. As a custom-made agreement with the EU, negotiations started in 1994 and took 16 years for an interim conclusion to be reached, involving around 210 treaties. And even then, there are a considerable number of issues left outstanding, so much so as to afford the City of London plenty of scope to argue for its disutility.
The point, of course, is that if the UK is ever in the fortunate position of being able to negotiate an exit agreement with the EU, it will be on the back of an “in-out” referendum, whence voters will be expecting a fairly rapid departure. There will be little tolerance for protracted negotiations and none at all for a sixteen-year delay while we sort out a Swiss-style agreement.
That is the reason why the “Norway option” is so attractive. Embodying EFTA/EEA membership, it provides an “off-the-shelf” solution which would enable our negotiators to settle the complex issues pertaining to membership of the Single Market, and protect short-term commercial and economic interests, facilitating a speedy withdrawal from the EU.
That is not to say that the Norway option is ideal, much less that it represents the end game. It is a temporary fix – an interim solution which enables us to start the long-drawn-out process of dismantling forty years of economic and political integration.
Looking to the longer term, however, Norway does offer a model in terms of the skill and facility with which it is able to exploit the globalisation process. The way it represents itself on international rule-making bodies that feed into the WTO trading agreements and into the Single Market acquis, is something we could copy to our advantage.
As our knowledge and understanding of this process improves, we can now see that the fundamental processes underwriting European political integration are beginning to unravel. The essence here was the so-called Monnet method – economic integration as a means of achieving political integration.
The glue which binds that process is regulation – the acquis communautaire – which forms the basis of the Single Market. Those who complain about regulation and the Single Market are missing the point: the heart of the Single Market is regulation.
But, if the task of trade regulation is increasingly being assumed by global rule-making bodies, all under the aegis of the WTO, the Single Market is being rendered obsolete. When global rules apply globally, there is little justification for regional rule-making bodies.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that global rule-making is haphazard and incoherent – difficult to understand and lacking almost entirely in transparency and accountability. A longer-tern exit solution for the UK, if it involves a more direct participation in the global rule-making process, must include measures to simplify and improve the global regulatory system.
The result of this could be the eventual scaling down of the Norway option, reducing it to membership of EFTA – purely for convenience. As the transition from a European to an integrated global trading system is completed, EEA membership could be abandoned.
Thus, the end game in the process of leaving the EU is most likely to be neither the Swiss nor the Norwegian option, per se. EFTA membership, though, remains attractive, as it would provide a convenient forum for discussion and planning between nations with common interests.
Despite that, I cannot see EFTA surviving in its current form. The chances are that, if the UK leaves the EU, others will follow. The new, larger grouping will need a different name. North East Atlantic Trade Association might be appropriate. That certainly would be a NEATA solution.