Saturday, 16 September 2017

Flexcit reality check

Simon Nixon's recent Times article "Norway option is not the long term answer to the problems posed by Brexit", drawing heavily on Jean-Claude Piris's article for E!Sharp magazine, has caused a flurry of discontent among proponents of the EFTA EEA option.

Most notably unhappy are Flexcit supporters who propose a permanent EFTA EEA option which they believe can then be amended/reformed to meet our Brexit objectives. I was a Flexcit supporter, until the scales gradually fell from my eyes - a process that started spring 2016 and completed after the Referendum. For me the Nixon/Piris article covered some (of the many) issues I discovered in my journey away from Flexcit.

Freedom of Movement

The EEA Agreement encompasses the EU's "four freedoms", including Free Movement of People. This is often seen as the Achilles heel of the Norway / EFTA EEA option.

Article 112 of the EEA agreement states that where "serious economic, societal or environmental issues arise",  safeguard measures can be used, limited to "what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation". Flexciteers claim that these could be used "unilaterally" by Britain to limit freedom of movement. Liechtenstein is quoted as an example of an EFTA EEA country that has imposed immigration quotas via Article 112 safeguard measures.

In 1995, prior to Liechtenstein's EEA accession, the EEA Council recognised that Liechtenstein was a "small inhabitable area of rural character with an unusually high percentage of non-national residents and employees" and effectively pre-authorised the use of safeguard measures assuming no other solution was found. Liechtenstein did not act unilaterally.

As Piris points out that there is no precedent for "unilateral" action, and Britain can hardly expect to gain similar free movement concessions as a tiny, rural, land-locked micro-state like Liechtenstein. Should Britain take the unilateral route, it will be subject to "rebalancing measures"  by other EU/EFTA states under Article 114 of the EEA agreement, i.e. retaliatory measures such as limiting Britain's access to the Single Market by suspending the Financial services passport for example (as suggested on Steven Peers' EU Law Analysis blog).

Still Pay, No Say?

Inevitably there are complaints that the article simply repeats the "still pay, no say" mantra from the Remain campaign. Nixon states that EEA members "contribute to the EU budget". Strictly speaking, Norway pays for participation in EU agencies and selected EU programs, as well as directly funding poorer Eastern bloc EU states via the EEA and Norway grants system. However, it is true to say that without such payments, Norway would not participate in the Single Market. EEA will come with a price tag.

Norway does have "a say" over EU law applying to the EEA agreement - early consultation when EU legislation is first presented to EU Council and observer status on committees. But at best, this is similar to Britain's current status minus voting rights - it cannot be considered an improvement.  

Nixon/Piris point out that post-Brexit Britain could not expect more say over EU law than Norway - no special rights of consultation, recognition of differing British standards, opt-outs on certain legislation. This would put Norway's nose out of joint (whose vote we would need) and more importantly undermines the fundamental EEA principle of homogeneity.

In any case, a key reason for Brexit was the undemocratic nature of the EU and the largely unfettered legislative power of the EU Commission.  How much say Norway has compared with Britain as an EU member state is rather a moot point - it's negligible in either case. We're leaving the EU because we didn't buy the "influence" argument.  The problem with the Norway option is it still leaves us subject to EU legislation.

EEA democratic reform ?

Optimistic EEA supporters (Flexciteers) suggest the EEA could be reformed to create a more democratic "single market of equals" and even devolve legislative power to other intergovernmental organisations. Nixon/Piris scotch that idea -  the ECJ has previously struck down earlier versions of the EEA agreement that gave too much influence to non-EU states.  If anything, the EU might seek to lash the EEA even tighter to EU law. 

Flexciteers cite UNECE WP.29 (world forum for harmonisation of motor vehicle regulations) as an example of the EU ceding legislative power to UNECE. The truth is that this forum has been the basis of European vehicle regulations since 1958 - with many EU member states involved on their own initiative. In 1998, the EU became a contracting party, and required EU member states to sign up to UNECE regulations the EU negotiates and agrees (but allowing member states to retain their own initiative in regulations not covered by EU agreement with UNECE). Since then, the EU has steadily increased its control over member states and now claims sole competence to speak and vote on behalf of member states at WP.29, giving it a block vote of 28, (soon to be 27). Rather than ceding power, the EU has executed a power grab over member states and now has a dominant position in WP.29. 

Juncker's recent "state of the Union" speech stated "trade is about exporting our standards, be they social or environmental standards, data protection or food safety". EU power is centred on its acquis (body of law) and it's ability to impose its acquis on others. Can anyone seriously believe the EU is going to cede legislative power? EFTA EEA is primarily a mechanism for extending EU law to EFTA states - the only reform the EU will be interested in will be to strengthen its grip.

This is precisely my fear regarding Flexcit - in seeking reform of EEA, the EU response will be to simply dust off the Verhofstadt/Duff Associate Membership plan. EEA states becoming associate members will get voting rights in EU law applying to them, but at the price of accepting this EU law having direct effect and primacy in national legislation - as per EU membership.  Verhofstadt/Duff tellingly describe EU associate membership as a "parking place for those states not yet ready for full integration".

EEA is not a given for Britain

The crucial observation by Nixon/Piris is that far from being a ready-made, off-the shelf Brexit option (as Flexciteers have claimed in the past), British membership of the EEA would face a number of immense political obstacles.

  • As a matter of process (Brussels does love its process), Britain has to leave the EU first, then apply to join EFTA and re-join the EEA.
  • The application to re-join EEA will be "mixed competence", requiring unanimous ratification by all EU states and regional parliaments, so is potentially vulnerable to a regional veto (as per CETA and Wallonia).
  • Unanimous consent from the EFTA EEA states is also required. Norway's consent cannot be taken for granted. Norway's position as EEA top dog will be taken by Britain. Norway's political class is pro-EU and still harbours ambitions to join the EU - they will be very ambivalent about Britain joining the EEA.
  • All of this means that a transition arrangement is needed just to achieve the EFTA EEA option.

It's unsurprising that supporters of the EFTA EEA option are critical of Nixon/Piris. They will argue that failure to invoke Article 127 of the EEA agreement (1 years notice to quit) means Britain automatically retains full Single Market Membership (although I dismissed this idea in an earlier post and Lawyers for Britain have also written a good critique). They will insist that the Liechtenstein option must be applicable for Britain (despite plenty of critiques, including a very good critique from Civitas). They will continue to believe that Britain can opt-out of troubling legislation, despite the fact that the EEA is founded upon homogeneity of law (EU law at that).

But Piris cannot be dismissed so easily. As a former director-general of the EU Council’s legal service, he is not lacking in knowledge or expertise.  Even if you think his view slanted, it is highly likely that his thinking represents Brussels thinking. The EU believes Britain cannot automatically retain Single Market membership. Are supporters of the EEA option proposing we will fight and win a legal challenge against the EU on this point ?

It follows that EU agreement is needed to make the EFTA EEA option feasible and so the EU will dictate the terms. The EU is not going to let Britain drive a coach and horses through the four freedoms and homogeneity. The EU is smart enough to head off any such attempts via counter-measures already in the EEA agreement and if need be by extracting additional commitments from Britain via the Article 50 Withdrawal treaty.

Supporters of the EEA option and Flexciteers tend to call other Brexiteers "fantasists". Yet it seems Flexcit is the biggest fantasy of all - the notion that we can shape the EEA to whatever we want. This is why I describe the Nixon/Piris article as a reality check for Flexcit. The only EFTA EEA option on offer will be "as-is" - continued EU law and free movement of people. The only reform on offer will be further entanglement via EU associate membership. It is time to ditch the Flexcit fantasy.