Richard North, 12/06/2017  

When the noise level gets this high, the only sane thing to do is take shelter in the bunker and wait until it subsides. There is absolutely no chance of divining anything coherent from the current tumult.

The thing about noise it that it is meaningless – it does not convey any useful information. Thus, while we can listen with some optimism to discussions about the emergence of the Efta/EEA option, we have to appreciate that most journos and politicians have very little idea what they are talking about. What they convey, therefore, has no meaning.

Steaming at high speed out of the gloom, though, smoke and sparks pouring from its funnels, is this article from the Guardian claiming to be an "exclusive". It tells us that if Theresa May insists on discussing trade and divorce bill at same time, the EU negotiating team will have to delay the start of the talks for at least a year while they draft new mandate for Michel Barnier.

From the look of it, with the source being another of those anonymous "senior EU diplomats", this doesn't look to be a serious proposition. Rather, it is a reflection of the EU's response to the UK's refusal to entertain phased talks. It has the feel of a coded message telling Mrs May to accept the negotiating structure already set out, or face significant delays in the talks.

However, if there is to be any serious move towards the Efta/EEA option, then it is not the "colleagues" to whom we should be looking but to the Efta States, for early talks on re-accession to their group. And, should that hurdle be overcome, much of the substance that we need to cover would be routed through the EEA Joint Council, with a view to agreeing country-specific protocols to cover the UK's post Brexit needs.

Yet, this is so far ahead of the current thinking that it won't dawn on the journalistic fraternity for some time yet. It will take a briefing from a "Brussels insider" to a favoured Financial Times journalist, before he can invent it all on his own, and "reveal" it to his adoring audience of lesser hacks.

Without that, the talk of a "soft Brexit" and remaining in the Single Market is just so much hot air. The only way this can happen (currently), outside the framework of the EU, is for the UK to work within the two-pillar structure of the EEA Agreement, using the standing committees of the Efta States.

Should this be put on the agenda, of course, it renders unnecessary the need to discuss, within the framework of the Article 50 settlement, free trade agreements and many of the other administrative arrangements (such as a customs cooperation agreement) that will be essential for a successful Brexit. Another issue that can be accommodated within the EEA framework is the vexed question of the continued participation in the EU's decentralised agencies – including the all-important European Medicines Agency. 

On the specific question of the Medicines Agency, and the location of its headquarters in London, I think the UK needs to be a little more inventive. It can note that the EU has been quite relaxed about passing the all-important responsibility for vehicle safety and construction regulation to Geneva, under the aegis of the UN agency, UNECE, which is hosting WP.29 (World Forum for Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations).

In like manner, it would be entirely sensible and realistic to propose that the EU passed the overall responsibility for medicines regulation to Geneva, creating a genuine, Europe-wide medicines regulator which took in Switzerland and Russia.

This would then allow the London headquarters to remain where it was, as it would no longer be a specific EU agency, requiring its location within an EU member states.

To propose such would be an example of the UK taking the political initiative instead of passively responding to (or obstructing) EU proposals. Putting the "colleagues" on the back foot, for a change, would also give us some much-needed negotiating leverage.

A similar solution could be found to the question of aviation safety, with is getting Airbus (and many others) worked up. If we dropped out of the airworthiness certification system currently administered by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), it could have a dramatic effect on the retention of Airbus manufacturing in the UK.

To detach EASA from Brussels and, for administrative purposes, make it responsible to UNECE in Geneva would exactly follow the process pioneered by automobile safety and the establishment of WP.29 hosted by UNECE. And, as a UN agency, the UK would continue to take an active part, making the financial contributions appropriate to its membership status.

These are not ideas plucked out of thin air. We are seeing an extensive programme of regional and global standard-setting, with the establishment of numerous bodies, from Codex Alimentarius to the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, to help manage the process. It makes absolute sense to fold these developments into the Brexit talks.

Because working within the regional and global environments also has implications for developing countries, which are either members or benefit from their activities, there are development implications here. This means that some of the UK contributions made could be taken out of the foreign aid budget, allowing what were previously EU contributions to be offset, yielding an overall saving to the taxpayer.

We must appreciate though, that nothing of this can happen – or even be attempted – without a much more sophisticated understanding of how global and regional standard-setting systems work, and of their relationships with the EU.

Improvement in the efficiency of the market authorisation of medicines and work towards a global system of approvals could potentially save far more, and yield greater trading opportunities, than could be delivered by free trade agreement, especially if the efforts were broadened out to cover other sectors.

But as long as the media and the politicians whom they inform are trapped in their shallow little mantras about the "Norway option" and losing influence over the making of regulation, the advantages of pushing for regulatory cooperation will not be recognised and will remain unrealised.

Ironically, given these possibilities, and the need to pursue Efta and then EEA negotiations, the UK would actually benefit from a short delay while UK negotiators re-orientated their positions. In the long run, it could even save time as we reap the benefits of a stable trading position without having to devote years  to negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU.

Necessarily, much of this will depend on the willingness of Efta States to entertain the UK's re-accession. If there are blockages there, we would have to be thinking in terms of reform of the EEA Agreement, permitting participation by members who were not in the EU or Efta.

That is more complicated than might at first appear, as it would require structural modifications to the two-pillar structure, to the Efta Court, and to the overall administration and funding of the Agreement. But again, these are the sort of things a UK government that was on the ball would be looking at.

As much to the point, a better-informed media would be generating the political momentum needed to advance such solutions, and a wider discussion on such issues would make a refreshing change to another round of churning on the "Norway option" and ill-informed speculation on "soft" Brexits.

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