Richard North, 18/04/2018  

There was a seminar organised by the Efta secretariat in Geneva yesterday on the European Economic Area (EEA). Opening the proceedings was Deputy Secretary-General Dag Wernø Holter (pictured) who informed his audience (repeated on Twitter) that: "The objective of the EEA agreement is to extend the internal market to the participating EFTA states".

It is good to see this sort of information getting a wider currency and it is the sort of thing that should be spread to all those involved in the Brexit debate. However, it is of some concern that this sort of thing should even need saying. Such information is readily accessible to anyone with the wits to find it – I included it in Monograph 9, published in August 2016 – and it should already be widely known.

At the same seminar, there was also Brit Helle, Director of the Goods Division of the Efta Secretariat. She tackled another basic fact – one often misrepresented: "Efta is not a fax democracy", she said. "The Efta/EEA states are not waiting for the latest legislation to be faxed from the Commission. Efta/EEA experts have the right to participate in EU expert groups. This is our most important channel for influence".

This, of course, is by no means the only channel of influence, and later in the seminar the "two pillar structure" was explained, which gives further opportunities for consultation and decision shaping.

The procedures involved are so well-known and well-established that Efta even published an explanatory document about it, way back in 2009. And that is enough to destroy the canard that Efta/EEA membership places the Efta states in a wholly subordinate position, where they are obliged to accept all (relevant) EU law automatically, and have no influence in its making.

Yet in the Guardian in December 2012, we had a piece by Roland Rudd, then chairman of the Europhile lobby group, Business for New Europe. The topic was Norway's relationship with the EU, the piece bearing the headline: "No power, no influence and we would still have to pay the bill".

The claim, and especially (but not exclusively) that part relating to "influence", was a lie - a direct, obvious and easily verifiable lie. And while Remainers to this day (rightly) complain about Vote Leave's £350 million lie on the side of the big red bus, less is said about this lie – one repeated uncritically by a newspaper which is now in the forefront of exposing the machinations of the Leave campaign.

This same newspaper was quite content to give David Cameron a platform when, in October 2015, a Downing Street spokesman said that Norway was "the 10th largest contributor to the EU budget and is bound by the rules of the single market without any say in the decision-making process".

Both these lies went unchallenged, while others – including the Independent, repeated the canard in early 2016 that Norway had "to effectively implement all EU rules, has no say in how they are made, and still contributes a significant amount of money to the EU budget".

But then, David Cameron was quite at ease with lying on his own account, which he did during his notorious Bloomberg speech in January 2013 when he stretched the lie beyond breaking point. "Norway is part of the single market - and pays for the principle - it has no say at all in setting its rules: it just has to implement its directives", he declared.

If Mr Cameron didn't know that was a lie, he could easily have found out. As prime minister, it was his responsibility to find out, and tell the truth. But these days, and especially in relation to the Brexit debate, lies have become part of the normal currency of politics, delivered routinely and repeated often, with rarely even a hint of an apology when the lie is found out.

Perversely, the lies on Efta/EEA have been repeated by both sides, but perhaps none more egregiously than by Peter Lilley who described the EAA as an organisation "devised for countries whose governments wanted to join the EU but whose people were reluctant", adding: "It is an ante-room, not a departure lounge".

Imagine then how the current situation might be different had the truth been told, primarily that the EEA was devised as a mechanism for European countries to participate in the Single Market without having to commit to the political integration involved in full membership of the EU.

How different would it have been if there have been an honest, open discussion about influence, and decision-shaping? Not only would there have been the two-pillar structure to explore, but the more informal political mechanisms and the role of global bodies and the ability to shape the rules before they even reached the EU.

Less frequently discussed has been the ability of nations such as Norway to initiate or sponsor global conventions such as the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) where it has been able, through this means, to protect a vital economic interest in the form of the Antarctic krill resource.

We saw a similar dynamic with Norway's involvement in the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, where it helped shape the regulations and the regulatory system which were subsequently adopted by the EU.

For too long, though, people have been content with the lies and, of a single group beyond the media, the most common transgressors seem to be Members of Parliament. These are people who, in terms of information resource, are fabulously wealthy.

Not only are they paid to employ their own research staff, they have access to a world-class library and research facility that any university would kill for. They have, though the medium of parliamentary questions, oral and written, access to ministers and though them the civil service, and they can write personally to any minister and expect answers.

Collectively, they have their select committees, their cross-party interest groups and, in the wider world, MPs (or their researchers) only have to pick up a phone to arrange a visit to virtually any commercial facility in the country – and many more – where endless numbers of people are only too pleased to explain how things work.

Yet, for all that, the bulk of the MPs who we encounter seem to be the most ignorant people on the planet, unable even to master the basics and prey to just about every myth and falsehood on Brexit that it is possible to imagine.

And so we have corrective seminars in a far-off city, delivered by anonymous bureaucrats from an organisation that is scarcely known outside its specialist field. There, the truth is spoken, to a gathering attended by not a single MP and probably none of their staff either.

Thus, in the wider world, the lies and misunderstandings remain unchecked and the distortions which poison the Brexit debate continue to exert their malignant influence. The truth will out, they say. But nobody is listening any more. The liars have inherited the earth.

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