Norwegian model for the UK: oh really?


Many Brexiteers claim that the United Kingdom would be perfectly fine with the Norwegian model as an alternative solution to fully-fledged membership of the European Union. This piece examines this option and questions the merits of such a proposition.

To begin with, there is no Norwegian model as such. The concept actually refers to the European Economic Area (EEA) comprising the 28 member states of the European Union and 3 European Free Trade Area (EFTA) countries, including Norway. For EU member states participation in the EEA is compulsory, they are referred to as EEA-EU states.

For EFTA countries it is optional. EFTA currently comprises Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Only the first three are in the European Economic Area as EEA-EFTA states, while Switzerland has a tailor-made deal with the European Union. The EEA is a very complex, heavily institutionalised and rather expensive alternative to EU membership.

The United Kingdom is already in the EEA in its capacity as EU member state. If the EEA were to be an alternative to EU membership, the UK would have to become a member of EFTA first and then rejoin the EEA but as EEA-EFTA member. Let’s first look what it entails and then explain how the UK could get there.

The European Economic Area is an extension of the EU’s internal market. At first sight, it may seem an ideal option for the United Kingdom if it left the EU. The UK would participate in the areas of European Integration it desires and would be allowed to stay away from the dossiers that are more controversial, particularly political integration.

The devil, however, is in details. The EEA entails all the freedoms of the EU’s internal market, including the free movement of persons, which as things currently stand, is the bone of contention. It also covers numerous complementary policies, among them employment, environment or consumer protection. These areas are an integral part of the single market.

EEA-EFTA countries are bound by all legislation that the EU adopts in these areas but they do not participate in EU decision-making. To tailor new legislative proposals to their needs, EEA-EFTA countries have to attempt influencing decisions during the early stages of the legislative process with no guarantee of success.

Neither Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein sit at the negotiation table in the Council of the EU. Furthermore, these countries are not represented in the European Parliament. If the United Kingdom were to opt for the EEA-EFTA option, it would quickly become a law-taker, which would be a considerable downgrade from its current position as law-maker.

The negative impact of being an EEA-EFTA member would be particularly visible in criminal law, agriculture and trade with third countries. The EEA framework does not cover EU criminal law. In theory, this option would cut the UK from the obligations of ever closer integration in Justice and Home Affairs matters as well as the EU’s complex and resource intensive Common Agricultural Policy.

As far as the first is concerned, the truth of the matter is that the United Kingdom has been benefiting from opt-outs since the Treaty on European Union entered into force in 1992. Having used the grand opt-out created by the Treaty of Lisbon it is bound now only by a handful of measures and can always opt-out of any future proposals.

Thus, joining the EEA would not bring many benefits compared to the current situation, but it would deprive the UK’s law enforcement authorities of the European Arrest Warrant as well as access to Europol and Eurojust. In order to keep the access to the latter two, the UK would have to negotiate a separate agreement with the European Union.

The European Arrest Warrant may be quite fairly criticised for its flaws, but it is a very useful tool in the hands of prosecutors and judges. It is not part of the EEA framework although a comparable arrangement between the EU and EEA-EFTA countries is envisaged in a tailor-made treaty.

A move from being EEA-EU state to EEA-EFTA country would also cut the United Kingdom from the Common Agricultural Policy. While UK farmers may not be among EU enthusiasts they have benefited for over 40 years from direct subsidies from the EU budget. It is hard to imagine they would give up their financial benefits easily. The UK would have to create its own agricultural policy and find ways to finance it.

Last but not least, the EEA does not have an external dimension. By leaving the EU and by becoming EEA-EFTA country the United Kingdom would lose all free trade and trade liberalisation agreements with third countries it benefits from now. A generic argument made by those in favour of leaving the EU is that such agreements can be negotiated by the United Kingdom with ease. In principle this is true, but when, at what price and how would these agreements be negotiated?

Such negotiations would have to be conducted with non-EU countries in parallel to withdrawal negotiations. They would be intense and with no guarantee of success on the horizon. Negotiating such agreements as a medium sized country, instead of the biggest trade block in the World, will not be an advantage. Furthermore, the idea that potential trade partners are sitting and waiting to offer free trade deals to the United Kingdom is an illusion. For this dance one needs two partners moving in unison. This may prove tricky, to say the least.

What steps would have to be taken for the UK to become member of the EEA as EEA-EFTA country? Procedurally, it would be a rather messy exercise as it would require parallel negotiations with different partners. First, the United Kingdom would be negotiating the terms of Brexit with the European Union. Second, it would have to negotiate membership in the EFTA and the EEA at the same time. The first would be conducted with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The latter would involve the EEA-EFTA countries, the European Union and its member states. Ideally, at the same time, the UK should be negotiating free trade deals with third countries.

In theory all of this is perfectly doable though it would require an army of negotiators, very good co-ordination skills as well as loads of political capital, persuasion and luck. In order to avoid a legal vacuum, a plethora of agreements would need to enter into force simultaneously. No doubt, it would be difficult to accomplish. This is not part of “project fear” but a basic reality check.

One cannot emphasise enough, though, that the main drawback of the EEA model is elsewhere. As already mentioned, the participation in the European Economic Area on the EFTA side translates into almost automatic acceptance of dozens of EU legal acts which are adopted without participation of the EEA-EFTA states.

Furthermore, it is an illusion to think that by leaving the EU and swapping for the EEA-EFTA the United Kingdom would gain sovereignty. Instead, it would go from being a law-maker to a law-taker.

Adam Lazowski is Professor of EU Law at the Westminster Law School at the University of Westminster

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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  • IrvSwerve

    OK it would be difficult,so does that mean we shouldn’t bother if other considerations become the most important,such as questions of sovereignty and independence.
    However one advantage you haven’t mentioned is that it would provide plenty of work for academics,your students and lawyers in general!

    • I understood that one of the significant drawbacks of leaving the UK was a reverse loss of sovereignty – the expression used was becoming a law-taker. The essential gist of the argument was that becoming an entirely sovereign nation would require that we did not use the EFTA model, aka the Norway Model. All that presupposes that in an increasingly connected world, being a sovereign/independent nation has as much meaning as it once did.

  • CBinTH

    Furthermore, it is an illusion to think that by leaving the EU and swapping for the EEA-EFTA the United Kingdom would gain sovereignty. Instead, it would go from being a law-maker to a law-taker.” Well, it’s nice to know that a public website uses my money to pay for ‘impartial’ information such as this. And all those articles on this website that are as clearly in favour of Brexit as this article is clearly in opposition to it provide just the right kind of balance, don’t they?

    Rather than being informative, this whole article is an argument to convince us of the writer’s point of view. Not even of that, really (since the case presented is pretty vague) – the article is a narrative intended to convince us to accept the writer’s policy prescriptions. This is not a newspaper’s website. This is funded by the general public, a large proportion of whom hold very different opinions.

    • Diogenes

      This article is written by a Professor of EU law at a reputable university. As such it constitutes an assessment based on expert knowledge of the topic at hand. Somehow you are advertising your displeasure that your ignorance is not worthy of the same regard. Further to this, you suggest that the sum of uninformed opinion should guide expert analysis.
      I am flabbergasted at your beacon of stupid.

      • CBinTH

        In your anger and hate, you have entirely missed the points I was making.

        This article is not an assessment from an expert. It is, rather, an argument from an expert. The expert may have come to his opinions from having made an assessment himself. He may even have included perfectly valid reasoning within this argument presented here. But the article itself still does not constitute an “assessment”, or “analysis”, even from a biased source, any more than would an Op-Ed in a newspaper or a speech by a politician.

        To illustrate what I mean, I think that this article has more in common with a lawyer putting forth his case, than with the judgement coming from a judge at the end of the trial. (If you don’t see why I think that this is problematic, skip to the last paragraph)

        The bit I quoted in my earlier comment was chosen because it is actually a particularly tendentious representation of the Norwegian position. It’s not right to allow the reader to infer that Norway is entirely subject to all European law. The European “law” to which Norway is subject is related to agreed policy areas and to regulatory standardisation within certain industries. Nor is it the case that Norway has no role in the creation of those regulations – it may not have a vote on the regulation once it is presented to EU governments for ratification, but it is a powerful lobbyist which is formally consulted as to its interests at an early stage of the creation process. Much of the legislation adopted by Norway goes through the Norwegian Parliament, and is not compulsory. Some of the laws and regulations originate with international organisations other than the EU, such as the World Trade Organisation, at which Norway and the EU (but not individual EU members) have a seat.

        The expert who wrote this article could no doubt fascinate us with an exploration of all these factors, and, if he were actually presenting an analysis, would be at fault for not doing so. But as this article is only an argument he feels no obligation to do so; it is enough to simply present us with one of the problems with the Norwegian option.

        So the question is not whether the “sum of uninformed opinion” should guide expert analysis (although I hear that there is much to be said for the wisdom of crowds), but whether or not public funds should be used to put forwards arguments in favour of a particular point of view, or to support a particular side in an election. We would usually consider that to be propaganda – it is, in any case, a misuse of funds.

        I’m sure you would agree that this shouldn’t be the case. It’s one thing for the ESRC to provide funds for the enlightenment of the public, or even for provocative debate, but it is quite inappropriate for tax payer money to be spent to – in effect – convince you of a particular opinion. Besides which, it is poor management of funds. This article was not of a higher quality or of more in-depth content than that found in the mainstream media or on multiple blogs, and it wasn’t seen by very many people, so why did we spend money, perhaps tens of thousands of pounds, setting up this website and inviting a few people to write these self-indulgent articles?

        • Diogenes

          It appears that you have been stung into pursuing some basic research of your position, not to mention actually defining a position.
          This position would appear to be a summation of the legislative influence of the Norwegian model.
          While cataloguing the minutae, you may have skirted the inescapable circumstance that Norway is subject to EU laws with regard to participation within the Single Market. As for being a powerful lobbyist, I suspect you have simply made that up. Look at Sverdrup’s assessment from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs:

          As Lazowski says, “.. it is an illusion to think that by leaving the EU and swapping for the EEA-EFTA the United Kingdom would gain sovereignty. Instead, it would go from being a law-maker to a law-taker.”

          As as professor of EU law, Lazowski has a reputation to defend, he has refuted wishful thinking on the part of certain Brexit beliefs.
          It is unlikely that he would compromise his reputation by publishing polemic that is not backed by research. You, on the other hand, display no relevant credentials, offer no evidence but merely pose a weak argument when goaded.

          I cannot confess to a sense of anger and hate reading your output so far, merely a sense of incredulity that your subjective opinion should be defended. I might describe it as a display of intellectual entitlement lacking in the basic tenets of reason and evidence. Noise.

          • CBinTH

            “You have been stung into doing some actual research” – No, research is what I did before the Referendum, hence my initial comment, many months ago. All I did this afternoon is take a quick refresher. It is evidently you who have been “stung” into research.

            If you want to look at the actual assessment Sverdrup co-authored, as opposed to an argument or case that Sverdrup later put forward, look at It’s really, really, easy to find, on a quick Google. It’s a bit dense, but even if you’re as thick as me you can dip in and out and get a flavour of the piece. But it’s only the beginning and summary that are available in English – to find out about the details, which are in Norwegian, we have to look at what other Norwegians have to say about the report,

            The report notes in a footnote that the issue, of how much EU law is adopted by Norway, is politically sensitive and subjective: “foreign minister Halldór Ásgrímsson in 2003 stated that Iceland under EEA and Schengen had already adopted over 80 percent of EU law, while the next foreign minister, Davíð Oddsson, two years afterwards stated that that the share was only 6.5 percent. «The gap between these two percentages is, of course, too great to be explained by any changes in the operation of either the EU or the EEA. The only real difference was that the two foreign ministers held a very different policy on EU membership».” The author’s chose to arrive at a figure of 75% by looking at the policy areas which Norway had agreed to incorporate into domestic law. Also, at one particular category of EU legislation. Norway has its own Fisheries policy, its own Agriculture, and, of course, it is not part of the SIngle Market, so that it is able to have its own trade relationships with external parties.

            This largely explains why Norwegian Eurosceptics argue that only 9%/17% of EU legislation is in force in Norway – EU regulations are often Directives about the importation of goods, while Agriculture and Fisheries are also areas which create a disproportionately large number of regulatory acts – so if you measure EU “legislation” by volume Norway would seem to escape most of it. Sverdrup would reply that some legislation is much more important than others, and so justify his much higher figures.

            Lazowski states that Norway is a “law-taker” rather than a “law-maker”. But that is, as I have maintained, polemic or argument rather than analysis. Because an actual analysis of the situation would have to explain the complexity of the situation rather than simply make points to convince you to share his opinion. As Lazkowski doesn’t say, but would admit was true, Norway has a role in creating EU law and is reasonably satisfied with the arrangements that result, as evidenced by the fact that the Norwegian Parliament tends to nod through such legislation as reaches it (as opposed to the Parliaments of EU members, which get no say). As he doesn’t say, but would agree, it is exempt from EU law in important areas (Fishing is the big one for Norway, but they also stood under no threat of EU finance regulation, a situation that the British may have envied.) Norway also has a veto, although this has never been used. The veto is written into the Treaty, and is called a “reservation”.
            And as he doesn’t say, but would have to agree, if Noway were an EU member, it would only be one out of 29. What’s more, it would be weighted for its population – it would have 7 votes in the Council of Ministers and in the European Council, out of 352, or, less than 2% of the total vote.

            In sum, Norway trades the power of a small member state with 2% of the vote for the lighter weight of responsibilities that comes with being semi-detached in the EEA. Despite being much wealthier than the UK, Norway pays only half the net contribution (and gets to direct the money, as it chooses, to poorer EU states). It opts out of various policy areas and organisations, and can make its own trade deals and govern its own fisheries. It gets to adapt EU law rather than to incorporate it outright.

            You say that “As as professor of EU law, Lazowski has a reputation to defend, he has refuted wishful thinking on the part of certain Brexit beliefs.” But actually, he’s hardly bothered to do that. I mean, an in-depth argument debunking Eurosceptic canards would be a contribution. But all he’s really done is express his opinion in hoary old cliche. No Eurosceptic would be convinced by an argument which Lazowski must know has been put before, and to which counter arguments already exist. Any informed Remainer would be bored. Any uninformed member of the public would be short changed by the article – especially if they mistook it for analysis.

            As to the author “compromising his reputation by publishing polemic that is not backed by research,” this doesn’t address two problems. The first is, that he is publishing polemic, rather than analysis. The second is, that so long as what he says is not factually incorrect (or unfashionable) he won’t be compromising his academic reputation. A polemic which is not factually correct can nevertheless be misleading or uninformative.

            The question remains. Why are taxpayer funds being used to produce propaganda in the run-up to a Referendum? Why are the articles on this website not more informative (to be fair, there are a few academic papers)? Does the small readership justify the expenditure of tax payer money?

            Concerning the offensive comments about myself: Members of the general public are obliged to analyse the material that is put before them, rather than simply to agree to whatever they are told is the consensus of experts, and repeat the resultant buzz words like a brainless parrot. Your last comment about me is strange, because I have done nothing but present evidence and reason, and because I have been at pains to explain what I had originally, actually, been saying, and you have done nothing to directly address this. You have said nothing on the subject of government funds being used to promote views which coincide with the government’s position on a subject that is to be decided in a Referendum.

            My initial comment about you, however, makes perfect sense: what sort of person, who wasn’t hopelessly unbalanced, would make such insulting comments without being motivated by either anger or hate?

          • Diogenes

            So you are presenting arguments of the percentage of EU directives assumed with Norwegian law by referencing the Icelandic independence movement? You know Iceland is a different state?
            I do not see justification in the verbiage above for any of your previous statements. I think you should probably occupy your time in some other, more constructive pursuit.

        • kevinroche

          Additionally, should the UK join the EFTA, we would be, by far, the biggest economy in that bloc and, presumably able to wield significant negotiating power. Of course the downside of that is that the current members may not (although they also may) consider that to be a good position for them.

    • Garin

      No. I believe this article is presenting an informed argument, but use your own research to come to your own opinion. A logical argument only convinces the reader of the writer’s point of view if the arguments themselves are logical. If someone is easily convinced, more fool them.

      • CBinTH

        Yes, it is an informed argument. But should it be an argument at all?

        Of course, I concede that the presentation of any information is necessarily going to prioritise certain points of view and certain concerns, so absolute impartiality isn’t necessarily possible or desirable. And reading the arguments produced around any particular issue is one way to find out about that issue, so providing a series of arguments might be educationally worthwhile – even if those arguments are only one side of a debate.

        But there is a great demand for impartial information and data, which isn’t really satisfied when the information blurs with personal opinion. At its best, the BBC (particularly the website) provides a good source of pure information, by repeating the claims of rival sides, and then analysing the pro’s and con’s of those claims accordingly. So it can be done.

        I was just a bit touchy about the principle of public money being used in this way. Since the Referendum, the whole programme seems to have upped its game considerably, with much more genuinely informative content.

        Perhaps I was wrong to be touchy, since some of the recent informative content includes opinionated pieces not wholly unlike this article. The main change is the variety and depth of what’s included here.

        And thank you, by the way, for allowing me the dignity of a personal opinion. Not everybody is happy that I should have one

  • Biccy

    I understand that only 5% of UK companies trade with the eu. The article makes it sound like the renegotiation would be a difficult one impacting all UK companies. Agree it is written very much with a remain vote in mind.

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