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Common Market 2.0: inside the campaign for a Norway-Style Brexit

9 min read

Where once it was an idea on the fringes, support for a Norway-style Brexit has entered the political mainstream. With Theresa May clamouring for a solution, supporters of a Common Market 2.0 believe they have the solution to get the Prime Minister out of a deep hole. Sebastian Whale sits down with three of the group’s backers, Lucy Powell, Rob Halfon and Stephen Kinnock

“Shall I go first?” asks Stephen Kinnock. “I’ve been the one who’s been banging this drum for about two years now.”

I’m sat in the dimly lit and curiously atmospheric surroundings of Conservative MP Rob Halfon’s office. It is the ideal hideout for a cross-party alliance to congregate, both from a practical and aesthetic perspective. In contrast to the homogenous and characterless offices in Portcullis House, Halfon’s nook – on the ground floor of a largely untrodden part of Parliament – is moody with mahoganies and dark greens.

Present are Halfon, sat comfortably in a conspicuous yellow armchair, Labour’s Lucy Powell and Kinnock, the MP for Aberavon, who walks me through the background to this unlikely coalition.

The trio back the so-called Norway Plus option, an arrangement that has the support of Tory MPs including Nick Boles, Nicky Morgan, Sir Nicholas Soames and Sir Oliver Letwin. The wider group meets once a week, usually in Soames’ office (which has the benefit of burning incense, apparently), with either Kinnock or Boles responsible for chairing.

At the turn of the year, following Powell’s instruction, the team undertook a relaunch. The campaign is now known as Common Market 2.0 (the 0 is pronounced as ‘o’ as opposed to ‘nought’, as Halfon discovers midway through our conversation). The rebrand sought to capture what so many MPs hear on the doorstep, that people supported the idea of entering a common market but have regretted the move towards political integration in Europe, particularly since the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. “That’s the story of the group,” concludes Kinnock.

Powell and Halfon were recent converts. “We’ve all had our own journeys,” the former says. The Manchester Central MP has long harboured concerns about a second referendum, but realised she had to come down in favour of a solution. Before the turn of the year, she came out for Norway Plus, believing the option achieved the coveted feat of honouring the referendum and representing a much-needed compromise.

Boles, who like Kinnock is most closely associated with the policy, said that more Tories could be won over. As a member of the Education select committee that Halfon chairs, Powell saw an opening. “I’m really good friends with Rob… we pretty much agree on nearly everything,” the former shadow education secretary says. Halfon nods, saying he now describes himself as a “Powellite”. Perhaps aware of the importance of message discipline, Kinnock interjects: “Powell 2.0.”

The Norway Plus option would see the UK join the European Economic Area (EEA) via the European Free Trade Area (Efta) pillar. In layman’s terms, it would mean staying in the single market (and therefore subject to the four freedoms). To ensure no border in Northern Ireland, it would also require entering either a permanent or temporary customs union with the European Union (that is the plus element) – though campaigners note that Efta countries are able to strike free trade deals, which they say should be the “long-term aim”. The UK would exit the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and the European Court of Justice.

Over the festive period, Halfon had a “eureka moment” when he took all this into consideration. “I thought why on earth weren’t we doing this before?” he says. “The other thing is, I want to do something that brings together two parties, two very different people from very different constituencies, Remain and Leave, that we can work together and work out a solution.”

Common Market 2.0 would not require changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, but a significant rewrite of the Political Declaration. An overhaul of the Prime Minister’s red lines would also be in order. May has made ending free movement of people a central tenet of her Brexit strategy, alongside the ability to strike free trade deals, which remaining in a customs union would prevent.

The MPs are keen to point out that under membership of the EEA, countries can use an emergency brake on free movement “if serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectoral or regional nature liable to persist are arising”. So far though, only Liechtenstein has deployed the mechanism.

Halfon doubts how “potent” freedom of movement is today compared to during the referendum. Kinnock notes that Switzerland was given the choice to trigger Article 112 of the EEA Treaty (the emergency brake) immediately when the country was considering joining the arrangement in the early 1990s. Powell argues that circumstances such as an economic downturn, downward pressure on wages from migration, or the mass movement of people would all allow governments to unilaterally end free movement.

“It’s those sorts of circumstances that most people are really bothered about. They’re not necessarily bothered about the day to day,” she adds.

All three agree that the magnitude of the PM’s defeat means her red lines are going to have to become “pinker and pinker”, as Powell puts it. “It partly depends which way she chooses to turn. Does she double down on trying to persuade the ERG and the DUP to back her, and she needs every single one of them to do that, plus a few Labour [MPs], or does she change strategy and try to build bridges across the House and get to something that the majority can live with?”

After boxing herself in at her Mansion House speech, in which she ruled out staying in the single market, Kinnock says the PM should reinterpret the mandate of the EU referendum. “We know there is a large number of Cabinet ministers who support this position,” he claims.

Halfon perhaps has most at stake. Tory members have been bullish on Brexit (Boles is facing threats of deselection for his proclamations, particularly on preventing no deal). But the MP for Harlow, a constituency that voted heavily for Leave, argues that when the public – and MPs – become appraised of the finer details of the plan, they change their tune. He claims he has had Cabinet ministers, frontbenchers and MPs “coming out of the woodwork” asking for Common Market 2.0 literature. “When do MPs ever read papers?” he asks. “Apart from The House,” Kinnock kindly interjects.

But one Brexiteer MP says of the proposals: “You can’t do Norway and carry the Conservative party with you.” They add: “Crucially, it entails freedom of movement, which is the most problematic element of remaining in the EU for a lot of the Labour members. So, I don’t think it’s a solution.”

Another leading critique of the Norway Plus option is that it would result in Britain becoming rule takers. But supporters reject this, saying the UK could derogate from new single market legislation. The Efta court, which the UK will be subject to, is “very different” from the ECJ, Halfon argues. “It’s a guidance body, not an enforcer". Kinnock says the court has no direct effect on UK legislation and says national parliaments would have to approve new regulations and directives.

Such is Halfon’s enthusiasm for the proposal that he reveals he would rather join the EEA than stay in the EU. “I’d love to have been a part of this. I don’t want to be in the EU, especially, speaking personally, because of what’s gone on since we’ve left. My heart was always wanting to leave. I was a 6/10 Remainer.” One less than Jeremy Corbyn, I comment. “I wasn’t going to say anything…” responds Kinnock.

Powell is perhaps one of the least likely converts to the Norway Plus option. She used to be a director of Britain in Europe, a pressure group for the UK’s role in the EU. “I used to campaign for Britain to join the euro,” she says, laughing. “I wouldn’t have done this with her if I’d known all this,” a sarcastic Halfon quips.

In this previous life, Powell would come up against Leave supporters such as George Eustice (now a Defra minister) and Nigel Farage who were advocating the policy. “They said we could have all the economic benefits but without any of the political institutions. That was their central argument,” she explains.

At this point, Halfon hands me a folder containing a list of names and quotes of people who have previously spoken favourably about the Norway option. They include Farage, Boris Johnson, Owen Paterson and Daniel Hannan.

Powell’s migration from a devout europhile to pragmatist is telling. Years debating Europe have shown her how unequivocal and undoubting in their own beliefs rival camps can become. She continues to see this with proponents of a second referendum, who have often have aimed their fire at the Norway Plus option. “It’s ridiculous,” she says.

But isn’t there a symmetry there between the two sides that could be tapped into?

“Maybe some people have gone too far down that road. You get so involved and so wedded that maybe some people can only see one side of an argument,” she responds.

“It is regrettable that some of the people I’ve worked with a long time, some of my colleagues, feel that way.”

But one Labour MP who came out for a so-called People’s Vote tells me they and others could swing around Norway Plus if it becomes a viable alternative.

A major challenge, of course, will be to win over the main party leaders. Kinnock wants Corbyn and May to recognise the Norway Plus model “is the right option for the country”. “It is in essence just putting flesh on the bones of Labour’s own position which is that we want a customs union and a strong single market deal… What we hope is that we can have both leaders come together around this.”

He adds: “Brexit is a monster that’s eating our politics. We’ve got to get beyond this and get back to what we’re actually elected here to do which is to sort out the massive challenges the country faces.”

But would the Norway Plus option, with all its compromises, really kill the Brexit monster? “These kinds of monsters are very difficult to slay. The Europe monster has been around for a long time – particularly in the Conservative party,” he responds.

“I genuinely believe that this would be an opportunity for us to say right, we have reset, we have reinvented in a realistic and pragmatic and bridge building way our relationship with the EU.”

Powell adds: “One of the ways to really turn the page is to get as wide a consensus in parliament as possible. Just edging a deal over the line is not going to be sufficient.”

Cross-party work on Brexit, wherever it is found, is perhaps to be celebrated. A pause on partisan politics would be welcomed by a public increasingly fatigued by what they see in Westminster. For Halfon, Kinnock and Powell, Common Market 2.0 represents that uniting Brexit policy that can bring together MPs from all sides.

“You’ve needed a plan around which people could unite. This has been hiding in plain sight for two years. But we’ve got there now,” Kinnock concludes.

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