Richard North, 28/12/2017  

Ever since Mrs May's Lancaster House speech last January, it has been the settled policy of our government that the UK should leave the EU's customs union and the Single Market.

Eventually, that might even happen once the "vassal state" transition period is over. Then we will have to confront the reality of a free trade agreement with the EU, by which time it will be too late to consider continued EEA membership, much less applying to rejoin Efta.

Looking at this issue as dispassionately as I can, however, the political well is now so poisoned that I cannot see Mrs May reversing her stance and going for the so-called "Norway option". Much as it seems the best possible policy, one has to take the view that the ship has sailed.

One question that has to be addressed, though, is whether in the next few years, the EEA will continue to exist in its present form. On the 1st January 2019, the Agreement will have been in force 25 years and, through that period, it has remained largely unchanged.

It is also the case that the original conception of the EEA – in the form of European Economic Space (EES) – is different from its current form, lacking as it does the all-important codecision process that would have given all members equal rights in creating new laws.

There would, on the face of it, therefore, be some scope for reform, creating a new structure that might also be attractive to one of its original members – Switzerland. Its own association with the EU is cumbersome, resource-intensive and past its sell-by date. The time is ripe for bringing together all the Efta members back under one umbrella, and perhaps pulling in other members into a reformed EEA.

This was a possibility broached in 2013 with the Spinelli Group and its proposal for a new treaty that would, amongst other things, form of associate membership. This also allowed for the possibility that, in time, the UK could join this group to form the outer zone of a Europe of concentric circles.

Since the UK's referendum and the onset of Brexit, there is credible evidence of the EU's intention to travel down the treaty route. While the UK focus has been on Brexit, this became apparent on 6 December, when the Commission set out its "roadmap" for deepening Europe's Economic and Monetary Union.

The roadmap built on the commitment made by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2017 State of the Union address and the Five Presidents' Report of 2015 to deepen Europe's Economic and Monetary Union and outlines "concrete steps" to be taken over the next 18 months – a period that ends well before Brexit nominally takes place.

In many respects, though, the Commission's proposals are remarkably modest and do not amount to a fundamental shift in the EU structures. One can nevertheless adduce that nature abhors a vacuum and that something will eventually be proposed which will be transformed into a new treaty which goes further than what amounts to "tweaks" to the eurozone.

There is a certain logic to this, by way of historical precedent. It has always been a central tenet of European integration that, like a bicycle, the EU must keep going forward or it will fall. And given the current stresses with Poland, amongst other problems affecting Member States, there is some merit in the suggestion that the EU will not survive long into the post-Brexit era.

That said, the EU has shown itself to be remarkably robust, defying all predictions – not least our view in The Great Deception that the EU would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. That was in 2003, some fourteen years ago, and even after a global financial crisis that nearly brought down the euro, the EU is still there.

As a result, I tend to take new predictions of downfall with a pinch of salt. In my view, we must work on the basis that the EU will survive for the foreseeable future. But, for that to happen, it must continue to evolve.

All of that leaves us with a high degree of uncertainty. With nothing firm on the horizon other than the Commission roadmap, the immediate future has never been more difficult to predict. This applies not just to Brexit but to the very future of the EU. And whatever the centripetal forces that may be acting on the EU, it would be fair to say that Brexit isn't helping.

At the very least, Brexit is sucking up the energy from the debate that otherwise would be focused on treaty change. And there can be no doubt the treaty process absorbs a great of energy. That much we saw with the Lisbon Treaty, with discussions extending from the 2001 Laeken Declaration right through to 2009 when the treaty finally came into force.

Another historical precedent here is that, the moment one treaty is in place, planning for the next one is never that far behind. Eight years down the line, we are certainly due for another serious treaty initiative and Brexit can only delay that process for so long.

Given the importance the "colleagues" attribute to treaty change, a likely outcome of this is pressure to get the Brexit process over as fast as possible, with minimum disruption. In other words, far from affording the process a great deal of weight, the EU will do whatever is necessary to finish it, with minimum disruption.

That leads to the supposition that the EU will not put a great deal of energy into the needs of the UK. The indications are that what the UK actually wants is of very little importance, compared to the enormous emphasis that it is given in our own nation.

In such circumstances, the Council's transitional proposals begin to make sense. Their "take it or leave it" nature suggests they care very little as to whether we like it or not. Mrs May in any event is in a bind. To avoid a catastrophe, she has little option but to take what she is given.

If the EU was a little more concerned about the outcome of Brexit, and the particular needs of the UK, then it would maybe be more concerned to offer something more acceptable.

And there lies the clue that the EU is not going to promote the idea of the UK re-joining Efta and remaining within the EEA. The very nature of its transition proposal means that, although we will have a Brexit in name only, in legal terms we will have left the EU.

If we leave the EEA at the same time, and have made no attempts to join Efta, rebuilding those ties is going to be very difficult. Getting all thirty remaining members of the EEA unanimously to agree to the UK's re-entry will be difficult, almost to the point of impossible.

In fact, the opportunity to pursue the Efta/EEA option was probably over the moment Mrs May delivered her Lancaster House speech. To make it work, we needed to have pursued rejoining Efta before the Article 50 notice was given, and with that speech the decision has been made not to go down that path.

Now, with effectively, only six months of substantive talks available to resolve the framework for our relationship with the EU, there simply isn't the time to pursue Efta membership – even if there was the political will, of which there is no sign.

The scenario that we thought most promising, therefore, seems set to be marked down as an opportunity missed. We look to be doomed to a half-life on the fringes of the EU, with the huge mountain to climb of recreating our trading relations with the rest of the world, without the "frictionless" access to the Single Market that we so needed.

Meanwhile, the EU retains control over the trading system that dominates the European landmass, and we have opted out of any meaningful system that would have enabled us to retain a degree of influence and even, on occasions, the ability to take the initiative.

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