CHRISTO­PHER BOOKER THE LAST WORD

It has taken far too long for politi­cians to se­ri­ously en­ter­tain the idea of a Nor­way-like deal

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Back Page -

Af­ter 20 months of ne­go­ti­a­tions, Theresa May can only now ask Par­lia­ment to make a seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble choice. Ei­ther sup­port a deal largely dic­tated by the EU, which even the Trea­sury can only present as an eco­nomic dis­as­ter; or leave with “no deal”, which the Trea­sury com­puter model guesses would be an even worse dis­as­ter.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, in all the re­sult­ing con­fu­sion, we last week saw a strange lit­tle cross-party al­liance, in­clud­ing Tory and Labour MPS, North­ern Ire­land’s Ar­lene Foster and var­i­ous oth­ers, for­lornly re­viv­ing as a “Plan B” the idea that we should go for their ver­sion of a “Nor­way op­tion” whereby, to re­tain ac­cess to the sin­gle mar­ket, we would join the Euro­pean Free Trade As­so­ci­a­tion (Efta) and thus re­main in the wider Euro­pean Eco­nomic Area (EEA).

But to those of us who, af­ter pro­longed study, have been urg­ing a proper “Nor­way op­tion” since well be­fore the ref­er­en­dum as the only ra­tional so­lu­tion to most of the prob­lems now be­com­ing so ob­vi­ous, what has been strik­ing is that none of these belated con­verts to the idea, let alone those who have been only too quick to ridicule it, has been able fully to grasp what this could have brought.

It would im­me­di­ately have taken us out of the po­lit­i­cal EU and three quar­ters of its laws. It would re­move us, like Nor­way, from the ju­ris­dic­tion of the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice (Efta has its own court). It would have freed us, like Nor­way, to ne­go­ti­ate our own trade deals with the rest of the world. As Efta mem­bers, it would, sur­pris­ingly, have given us more in­flu­ence over shap­ing EU trade rules than we had pre­vi­ously.

Un­der Ar­ti­cle 112 of the EEA Agree­ment, we would have been free to ex­er­cise se­lec­tive con­trol over im­mi­gra­tion from the EU. With ad­di­tional bi­lat­eral agree­ments with the EU on such is­sues as avi­a­tion (Nor­way has around 50 of them), we could have re­tained vir­tu­ally “fric­tion­less” ac­cess to by far our largest ex­port mar­ket, pro­vid­ing an eighth of our en­tire na­tional in­come. And it would thus have solved the Ir­ish bor­der prob­lem at a stroke.

Prop­erly un­der­stood and ex­plained, all this could have united the na­tion as by far the least dam­ag­ing op­tion avail­able. But be­cause Mrs May was too much un­der the spell of her Brex­i­teers, this was what she re­jected in her Lan­caster House speech; al­though it was part of the rea­son that Sir Ivan Rogers, our much more clued-up am­bas­sador to the EU, re­signed just be­fore that speech, warn­ing darkly of “mud­dled and ill-in­formed think­ing” at the top.

That was why Mrs May stum­bled doggedly on to­wards the ut­ter chaos we see to­day, threat­en­ing to land us with by far the gravest eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial cri­sis our coun­try has faced since the Sec­ond World War. The tragedy is that this was only too eas­ily avoid­able.

As a life­long, if in re­cent years in­creas­ingly crit­i­cal, lis­tener to the BBC’S Test Match Spe­cial, I’m afraid it was only af­ter the end of our re­cent test se­ries in Sri Lanka that I caught up with why we were not get­ting the usual ball-by-ball com­men­taries on the BBC. The rights to these on overseas tests for this win­ter and next had been sold to Talksport.

All we were left with on the BBC was some­thing on its web­site called Cricket So­cial, where a few of the TMS team sat in a stu­dio in Sal­ford watch­ing the cricket on Sky Sports, chat­ting more self­ind­ul­gently than ever about any­thing but the match it­self, such as an in­ter­view with Shane Warne about his lat­est book, which ended with him leav­ing the stu­dio ask­ing “What’s the score over there?” Plus, of course, inces­sant puffs for TMS pod­casts, and Jonathan Agnew giv­ing brief up­dates on the score on BBC news pro­grammes, as if he was out there on the spot in­stead of sit­ting in Manch­ester.

It is 70 years since, as a crick­et­mad school­boy, I first lis­tened to John Ar­lott com­men­tat­ing in half-hour seg­ments on our 1948 test se­ries against Don Brad­man’s leg­endary Aus­tralians. Af­ter that, we saw TMS swell through its glory days into a revered na­tional in­sti­tu­tion. But, as its later com­men­ta­tors be­came ever more ob­sessed with self-ab­sorbed trivia, such as where they had all had din­ner the pre­vi­ous night, like all proud em­pires it showed sad signs of de­cline. Does this lat­est ab­surd rein­car­na­tion her­ald its fall?

We could have re­tained vir­tu­ally ‘fric­tion­less’ ac­cess to by far our largest ex­port mar­ket

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