CHRISTOPHER BOOKER THE LAST WORD
It has taken far too long for politicians to seriously entertain the idea of a Norway-like deal
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