Richard North, 23/04/2019  

Predictably, as the moment of truth on Brexit draws closer, the political classes are under great scrutiny, while an increasingly disillusioned electorate deserts its traditional parties and goes chasing after the empty rhetoric of the nearest available demagogue.

As for the politicians, their best remedy to the vacuum of ideas which allows the demagogue to thrive is to come up with some serious ideas of their own which can address and potentially resolve the issues of concern. Rational people, given a chance, tend to be fair-minded and, if the politicians themselves are seen to be working on genuine solutions, they are usually given a hearing.

The trade of politics, however, is not one to which ideas come easy. Locked in the Westminster bubble, MPs are in a situation akin to that I've heard applied to consultants – they are permanent blood donors, their vital fluid constantly draining away until there is nothing left. It's all take and no give.

If ideas are the "blood" of politics, charging the system in the first place comes from a number of established routes but, since time immemorial, academia has played a central role in providing the intellectual fuel which keeps the system healthy and functioning.

The Brexit process, with all its complexities and the demand for intellectual input, would suggest that academia would be in its element, communicating just the ideas that politics needs but which is incapable of producing itself. But, as I have been constantly pointing out on this blog, it is not only politics which have let us down. Academia itself has consistently failed to step up to the plate, leaving the debate dangerously bereft of ideas.

And if one of the more controversial of those ideas has been the so-called Norway option, this is one of the areas where academics have almost universally missed the point, and steered the politicians in the wrong direction.

The most recent example of this comes courtesy of the Prospect magazine, a periodical which claims for itself to be: "The magazine with more range and intellectual depth than any other".

Even if the bar is probably quite low, that is still an extraordinary claim to make and one which is certainly not supported by its current edition which features an article by Anand Menon, entitled: "The awkward truth is that a Norway Brexit almost certainly wouldn’t work", with the subtitle, "There is no guarantee we would even be allowed to try it".

Menon, we have met before. He is director of a taxpayer-funded group of intellectuals based at King's College London, styling themselves as "The UK in a Changing Europe". He is often to be seen on BBC news and political programmes, and was a special adviser to the House of Lords EU Committee, giving him direct access to the front line of Brexit punditry.

As his current views on the vexed issue of "a Norway Brexit", Menon immediately poisons the well by claiming to assess what a "Norway option" (his exact words) "might mean in practice, whether Norway would welcome imitation by us, and whether the EU would even allow us to try".

Where this goes so badly wrong is that the Norway option has a well-established provenance and was described in detail in 2013 in a way that was then (and for a long period thereafter) entirely uncontroversial.

However, the mighty Menon, in reaching down from his lofty heights, doesn't feel any need to be constrained by commonly accepted definitions. In a typical example of the hubris that we have come to expect from academia, he tells us:
The idea that membership of the European Economic Area, plus a comprehensive customs arrangement might offer an acceptable way forward in the Brexit process has been propounded by a cross-party group of MPs. Under this scheme we would be in the EU single market along with the 27 EU member states, but like Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland, we would be outside formal EU membership.
If there was any doubt that this was not the Norway option as it is generally known, this is quickly dispelled, as he adds: "The Common Market 2.0 (CM2) plan, however, is rather misleading".

Menon is not even describing the Norway option, but a bastardised version which unnecessarily includes membership of a customs union and which lacks some of the essential elements required to make it work.

Relying on this flawed concept, Menon is thus evaluating something which leads him astray on most counts, rendering his entire work valueless – even without his determination to layer his own ignorance over that of the CM2 authors – when he asserts that:
First, proponents of CM2 stress that, while the UK would have to sign up to free movement of workers, the EEA model provides "new controls over free movement in exceptional circumstances". This is a reference to safeguard measures in the EEA agreement that allow for the temporary suspension of any of the four freedoms - of goods, services, capital and labour.
It is germane to point out at this stage that the Article 112 (et seq) "safeguard measures" in the EEA Agreement apply to any aspect of the Agreement, and not just the four freedoms.

Furthermore, and central to the whole issue, there is no time limitation built into the measures. Currently, Iceland applies the safeguards in respect of foreign investment, making for a permanent restriction on foreign ownership of companies and fishing vessels.

More specifically, in respect of freedom of movement, I have set out in great detail the case of Liechtenstein, which I revisited, illustrating how the principality had leveraged Article 112 to secure an amendment to the Agreement which effectively makes for a permanent exemption to the freedom of movement rules.

Menon then introduces a spurious argument, asserting that "the bar for application is high", citing the need to meet the requirement for "serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties" arising, relating this wholly to a numbers question, where pro rata our EEA immigration is less than that experienced by Norway.

This is a thoroughly dishonest argument at several levels but, most interestingly, when David Cameron sought in early 2016 to renegotiate freedom of movement, in the European Council conclusions of 18-19 February 2016, the European Commission declared that it intended to:
provide for a safeguard mechanism with the understanding that it can and will be used and therefore will act as a solution to the United Kingdom's concerns about the exceptional inflow of workers from elsewhere in the European Union that it has seen over the last years.
Given the "exceptional situation" existing in the United Kingdom, it added that the United Kingdom "would be justified in triggering the [safeguard] mechanism in the full expectation of obtaining approval". Approval from the Commission, of course, is only required for EU members. Efta states have, under the Agreement, the right to take unilateral action. The Commission's declaration was the clearest possible indication that the UK could have applied the safeguards.

This is where the whole debate is so heavily tainted, but Menon goes further to write of the "emergency brake" in reference to the safeguard measures. This is a common canard, repeated endlessly by other academics, as well as another writer for The UK in a Changing Europe.

Not anywhere in the EEA Agreement is there any reference to the safeguard measures being applied in any "emergency" context, other than in "exceptional circumstances" where immediate action is required, where the normal procedures may be truncated.

But if Menon joins the throng in misleading his readers, this is not the full extent of his talents. His next trick is to tell an outright lie, stating that "the process for triggering the brake is not unilateral". Says Article 112, though:
If serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist are arising, a Contracting Party may unilaterally take appropriate measures under the conditions and procedures laid down in Article 113.
For several hundred more words this drivel goes on, and that is what it is. Drivel – of the lowest grade by a man who clearly has little idea of what he is talking about.

The point, of course, is that there is a debate to be had on the Norway option. There are arguments for, and there are respectable counter arguments. But this low-grade, ill-informed, patronising stuff generally represents the fare being dished up by academia.

For their lacklustre performance on Brexit, we rightly criticise the politicians but the academics also need to come under the microscope. Their lazy, careless misinformation has poisoned the debate and let down people who are entitled to rely on a better standard than they are getting.

Most unforgivable of all though is the overweening arrogance of a group which rates itself so highly yet, collectively, should be hanging its head in shame.

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