Would EFTA Say ‘No’ to the UK?

Those of us who assumed that, upon leaving the EU, the United Kingdom would make the sensible choice of rejoining the European Free Trade Association and maintaining her participation in the European Economic Area tend commonly to come up against one of two objections. First, hardline Brexiteers object that membership of EFTA is “BRINO” (Brexit In Name Only). If the defining detail of ‘Brexit’ is non-membership of the EU, then this is not a logical position to hold unless one is going to argue that Iceland (for example) is a secret EU member. Former ‘Remainers’, on the other hand, are more likely to assert that “EFTA doesn’t want us” or even that an EFTA state (usually Norway) “will veto” any application from the UK. Such assertions are rarely challenged, but are they true?

Norwegian MP: “We Don’t Want Britain in EFTA” (or is it in the EEA?)

Much has been made of an article that appeared in The Guardian on 7 December 2018. Written by the Norwegian MP Heidi Nordby Lunde, it seems to say that Norway does not want the UK to join EFTA, and implies that an attempt to do so would be blocked. In some UK media outlets, and on social media, Ms Nordby Lunde was referred to as a “Norwegian Government Spokesperson” and her opinion was treated as definitive. She is of course entitled to her opinions, but she is just one MP among others, many of whom take a different view. 

Ms Nordby Lund is no disinterested observer but the Leader of Europabevegelsen i Norge, which campaigns for Norway to join the EU.

In Switzerland and Norway, politicians are generally rather more pro-EU than their electorates and Ms Nordby Lunde would rather her country were a member of the EU, not EFTA. Having her write about EFTA in a UK newspaper was like Aftenposten commissioning Ken Clarke or Anna Soubry to write an article about why Brexit is such a brilliant idea.

Rather than just reapeating the headline (“Take it from a Norwegian MP: we don’t want Britain in the EEA”), it is worth reading the substance of Ms Nordby Lunde’s article. Even the headline suggests that The Guardian subs didn’t quite understand the issues at hand. Until 31 January 2020, the UK participated in the EEA (European Economic Area or ‘Single Market’) de jure as an EU member, and she continues to participate de facto until 31 December 2020. The article is clearly about the UK and EFTA, not (yet) the EEA.

Ms Nordby Lunde’s reasons for feeling less than enthusiastic about UK membership of EFTA are surely reasonable. Trade blocs like EFTA seek to reduce barriers to trade partly by adopting common standards — standards from which the UK has stated that she wishes to diverge. Given Mrs May’s ‘red lines’ (at the time), it is hardly surprising that she felt that the UK would not be a partner committed to cooperation and consensus. Finally, she is writing in the context of the doomed “Norway For Now” initiative, which treated EFTA as no more than a means to an end: a temporary port in a storm to be abandoned once the waters had calmed. Whatever pragmatic appeal of “Norway For Now”, it was diplomatically reckless and offensive.

But Would Norway Say «Nei»?

Erna Solberg, the Centre Right Prime Minister of Norway since 2013, has been famously lukewarm (and often distinctly icy) about any future for the UK within EFTA. A week before the 2016 Referendum, Solberg’s message to UK voters was, “Don’t Leave: You’ll Hate It!”. It is not hard to conclude that her comments were invited by David Cameron, who had also urged President Obama to talk about our going to “the back of the queue” and who did his level best to trash any EFTA+EEA route out of the EU at every opportunity (despite later urging his successor as PM to take the EFTA route).

Yet Ms Solberg’s reasons for preferring the UK to remain within the EU were also an argument for EFTA being the UK’s natural post-Brexit home. As Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s former EU affairs minister explained“It matters to us that we have member states at the table that are market-oriented, focused on less regulation … and the Brits are definitely in that camp.” It surely follows that if ‘the Brits’ are no longer at that table as members of the EU, then their voice would be welcome within EFTA. The rôle of EFTA states in shaping EEA rules may not be perfect in Ms Solberg’s view, but an isolated and diverging UK is of little use, either.

Respecting Red Lines

In an interview with Politico in May 2018, Ms Solberg once again appeared to pour cold water on UK hopes of joining EFTA. However, the first thing to bear in mind is that Ms Solberg was making her comments against a background of the ‘red lines’ laid down by Mrs May (no free movement of workers, no EEA participation, no Customs Union, no ‘foreign court’ jurisdiction, no budgetary contributions) which left no room for manoeuvre. Ms Solberg does not say, at any point, that Norway would seek to block an application from the UK to rejoin EFTA, though taking Mrs May’s injudicious red lines at face value, she suggests that such an option might not appeal to the UK government. Neither does she make the positive case for EFTA — freedom from the majority of EU laws, under the jurisdiction of the EFTA Court, with an independent trade policy, the ability to make trade deals, greatly reduced financial contributions, etc. As usual, it is left to the Icelandic EFTA evangelist, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, to spell out one of the most compelling reasons for the UK to rejoin EFTA: to form an alliance with those free trading European nations with the most (indeed the only) experience of trading in and with the EU single market while not actually being members of the EU.

In her interview with Politico, Ms Solberg makes two observations which help shed light upon her public pronouncements regarding Brexit. The first is a candid admission that were the UK to (re)join EFTA and continue to participate in the EEA, then Norway would inevitably lose its current position of relative power:

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The second is a more unguarded admission that she would prefer Norway to be a full member of the EU:

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Notice that it was not ‘the pro-EU campaign’ which lost. “We lost.” There is no real public appetite for EU membership in Norway, and a more powerful EFTA would probably diminish it still further.

Another politician whose views regarding UK membership of EFTA have been tempered by the reality of the UK Government’s own red lines is Henri Gétaz, the Secretary General of EFTA. When interviewed about EFTA’s contingency planning for a ‘No Deal’ Brexit on 2 November 2018 he said,

“We are aware that some circles in London are promoting the idea of joining EFTA or European Economic Area (EEA). But that does not match the position of the British government, which has rejected the option and taken a different line.”

For EFTA to push for an outcome that the UK has explicitly rejected could be regarded as unwelcome interference (and EFTA is a trade bloc, not a political union), though he did not rule out a change in UK policy: 

“The question is not on the agenda until further notice. But if the British decide to do so, the EFTA states would consider it.”

On the EFTA website, the question of a membership application from the UK is explicitly addressed on the FAQ page:

If the UK would apply to join EFTA, how would the EFTA States respond? The UK government has clearly indicated that it does not intend to apply for membership of EFTA. However, if the UK would seek to re-join EFTA, EFTA Member States would carefully examine the application. A request for membership of EFTA would be considered by the EFTA Council,  where decisions are taken by consensus. It is not timely to prejudge what the outcome would be as EFTA remains open to examining all options to safeguard the interests of its Member States.”

Solberg’s Last Word?

In a story that appeared on the website of the Norwegian TV channel TV2 a mere ten days before Ms Nordby Lunde’s article appeared in the Guardian, the headline read “The British are welcome in EFTA. Norway may consider supporting the United Kingdom to join EFTA cooperation if the British so wish.”

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The original interview was published by Reuters and can be read in English here. The key paragraph is surely this:

Asked whether Norway would support Britain coming back to EFTA, Solberg told Reuters in an interview: “If that is what they really want, we will find solutions in the future.“”

This does not sound like a country determined to veto an EFTA membership application from the UK. On the other hand, it is clear that EFTA states will not be interested if the UK sees EFTA membership as a temporary measure or lacks commitment. EFTA works well for its member states (3 of which also participate in the EEA). All the indications are that an application from the UK would be welcome, but only if it is made sincerely.

Appendix: What have other EFTA members said?

On 10 July 2015, the Swiss MP Thomas Aeschi and the Icelandic MP Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson wrote a joint article for The Daily Telegraph entitled Dear Britain, there is life outside the EU.

Hearing Iceland’s  Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson interviewed by the BBC’s Mishal Husain a couple of days later was enough to convince the Executive Editor of Conservative HomeMark Wallace (though he means EFTA+EEA, not just EFTA):

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Three days after the EU Referendum, on 27 June, the EFTA Council held one of its scheduled biannual meetings in Bern, Switzerland:

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More detail of the proceedings was sketched in by Professor Carl Baudenbacher, the then President of the EFTA Court, when he gave the Annual Lecture at The European Law Centre later that year.

The former President of Iceland,  Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson commented the day that the result of the EU Referendum was announced, and it was clear that he anticipated the UK remaining within the EEA.

Compared to the widely shared Nordby Lunde interview, it is easy to lose sight of a little-noticed interview given by Erna Solberg to The Financial Times in May 2018.

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In 2019, around the time of the indicative votes in parliament (26 March), Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson repeated his invitation to the UK to (re)join EFTA in an interview with BBC’s Today programme:

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2 thoughts on “Would EFTA Say ‘No’ to the UK?”

  1. If UK did rejoin EFTA it would strengthen the group in dealing with the EU something that Switzerland does need – more support against EU incursions!

  2. Sure they would accept a SINCERE request but that is what is needed! It would strengthen our position in Europe and in dealing with EU if we have credentials for our commitment but this would not stop us making own trade deals.

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