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Naeroyfjord in Norway. Photograph: Alamy

‘Norway for now’ would mean no-deal Brexit later

With Theresa May in Oslo on Tuesday, the theory that we should copy Norway post-Brexit will get more oxygen. In particular, the idea that we should embrace “Norway for now” and then negotiate a Canada-style deal could gain currency.

Nick Boles, the Tory MP close to Michael Gove, has been pushing the scheme. So too has Frank Field, the semi-detached Labour MP.

But it is a deeply flawed idea, which won’t work for a host of legal and political reasons. It is designed to hide from the people the truth of how miserable Brexit will be until it is too late. If MPs from across the political divide fall for it, they will condemn the country to more political infighting as well as uncertainty that will be a drag on investment and the economy.

Boles’s plan is a form of “blindfold” Brexit. He wants to park us in the European Economic Area (EEA) while we negotiate a long-term free trade deal like the one Canada has with the EU.

The EEA is a club consisting of EU countries and three non-EU countries, all of which are part of the European Free Trade Association, and the biggest of which is Norway. Membership would give us access to the single market. We’d also avoid customs controls, which apply to Norway, because we’d stay in a temporary customs union with the EU, according to Boles.

And don’t be fooled by the nice “Canada” branding. The deal it has with the EU is pretty good for a country the other side of the Atlantic, but it would hurt the UK, which does almost half its trade with the EU. Pulling out of the single market would thwack our services industries; quitting the customs union would gum up the supply chains of our car, aerospace and other manufacturing industries.

What’s more, Norway for now isn’t even viable. As Jean-Claude Piris, former head of the European council’s legal service, has shown in a series of tweets, the whole plan is riddled with legal holes.

There are also political problems. The EU would only let us park ourselves in the EEA if we agreed to keep the land border in Ireland open once we flipped to Canada. There would need to be customs and regulatory checks between Great Britain and the EU when we pulled out of the customs union and single market. So the only way to keep the Irish land border open would be to impose checks in the Irish Sea. But the prime minister has rejected that because it would split the UK.

What’s more, Norway wouldn’t want us in the EEA for an indeterminate period of limbo – and its acquiescence is needed because Boles envisages us joining Efta as our route into the EEA. While Oslo says polite things about being “open” to us joining on a permanent basis, it likes being a big fish in the small Efta pond alongside Iceland and Liechtenstein. It wouldn’t want us swanning in for a few years, throwing our weight around and then swanning off again.

So Norway for now is dead in the water. There is, though, a variant that could work: extending the 21-month transition deal that the prime minister has already negotiated until we nail down a trade deal a bit like Canada’s. After all, the EU has said it is open to that idea, which involves staying in the single market and customs union but not formally in the EEA.

The snag is that the bloc would first insist we pay our £39bn divorce bill – and agree to that Irish backstop. What’s more, it would want us to pay a membership fee of perhaps £12bn net for each extra year of a transition that could last a long time.

When May toyed with “Brextra time” this month, she almost provoked a coup because it would mean following EU rules and trade policy indefinitely having without having a say in their formulation. Hardline Brexiters didn’t want us to become a “colony”. She has, for now, beaten a retreat.

Boles is a clever man. So he must know the flaws in his plan. Why, then, is he touting it? Does he hope to throw enough dust in the eyes of fellow MPs that they end up rejecting May’s plan and installing his buddy Gove in Downing Street?

If so, the public should beware. If any government insisted on Norway for now, the negotiations would fail and we would crash out of the EU with no deal at all.

This doesn’t mean the prime minister’s lousy plan is any good either. The only sensible solution is to wait until the talks end and let the public decide in a People’s Vote whether they still want Brexit at all.

 Hugo Dixon is deputy chair of the People’s Vote and chair of InFacts

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