Brexit: A Norwegian view on ‘Norway-plus’ and why it wouldn’t be easy for the UK

With British Prime Minister Theresa May seemingly struggling to win support for her Brexit deal there is much talk that Britain should go for the so-called Norway-plus model, but Norwegian academic Hans Petter Graver argues that it won't all be rosy.

Brexit: A Norwegian view on 'Norway-plus' and why it wouldn’t be easy for the UK
Photo: Deposit photos

The UK parliament’s rejection of the government’s Brexit deal has put the idea of a “Norway-plus” model back on the table as a possible outcome of the UK’s long march towards Brexit. Norway is not a member of the EU, but it is associated with the bloc through more than 130 agreements, including the comprehensive European Economic Area (EEA) agreement. Through these agreements, Norway has incorporated roughly three quarters of EU legislation, but is not involved in making these laws.

The EEA agreement is based on a structure that mirrors the governance and legal institutions, with bridging arrangements between the countries in both the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the EU. The institutional arrangement reflects the fact that Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway were not willing to rescind sovereignty to a set of international institutions. Switzerland is the only EFTA member that is not in the EEA and it has its own separate arrangement with the EU. This includes free movement of persons and goods, but only to a limited extent the free movement of services. But all these countries have access to the EU’s single market.

To adopt the Norway model, the UK and EU would have to include the EFTA states in their negotiations. The UK would also have to seek membership of EFTA, or reach a separate agreement with the EU and the EFTA states.

The EEA agreement is not designed for the participation of countries that aren’t a member of either the EU or EFTA. Such a party to the agreement would not be subject to the jurisdiction of any of the courts or surveillance mechanisms that are central to the main characteristics of the EEA agreement. The UK would therefore either have to negotiate an arrangement with the EFTA states to be subject to the jurisdiction of the EFTA Surveillance Authority and the EFTA Court, or an arrangement with the EU to be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union.

For reasons of reciprocity, the other parties to the EEA agreement would have to give their approval to such an arrangement within the EEA. It would also require the agreement of Switzerland, since Switzerland is party to the EFTA treaty.

Not tailored to UK interests

It’s not clear that such negotiations with the EFTA states, and with Norway in particular, would be straightforward. Although the Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, and influential Icelandic politicians have indicated they would welcome the UK into EFTA, there have also been some more reserved voices.

Norway has many interests in common with the EU’s Nordic and continental member states. It is a strong defender of a social market economy and defends a significant role for the public sector in shaping society. It is well-known for its progressive policies on gender equality and sustainable development. The UK and Norway, on the other hand, have different interests in many areas such as in fish, agriculture, and labour market standards, among others.

But Norway also has strong historical and contemporary bonds with the UK, from trade to defence. The two states share a restricted vision of the EU’s political development in the sense that neither want the EU to become a fully-fledged federal state. The UK is also one of Norway’s largest single state markets for goods and services.

If the UK joins the EEA, the UK’s significantly greater size and global influence will likely unsettle the balance within the EFTA-part of the EEA. The UK’s and Norway’s differences in interests and priorities will become apparent, as the EEA is not tailored to the UK’s interests. Crucially, non-EU EEA countries have to agree unanimously to adopt a EU law into the EEA. This has worked well up until now, but will probably be much harder should the UK be part of this arrangement.

The UK is unlikely to end up balancing state sovereignty, national democracy and market access in a way similar to Norway. Norway’s handling of its many types of EU association relies on a range of factors, not least the ability to de-politicise the situation and to disassociate the deeply politicised issue of EU membership from the rapid and dynamic process of adopting new EU legislation. The UK’s political system is prone to confrontation, and stands in marked contrast to Norway’s where consensus is usually sought.

Norway unsettled

The UK is likely to politicise the EEA agreement and in doing so may render more starkly apparent the fact that EEA countries are not EU members, but must accept EU law. Today, Norway enjoys a status as an awkward special “member” of the EU because it is so tightly included within the single market. The process of Brexit will symbolically and substantively underline that Norway is not actually a member – and this will clearly rub off on the EEA if the UK is included within it.

Even though there has been a lot of consensus over the Norway model within Norway, the country is deeply divided over the question of whether Norway should actually join the EU. The strongest opponents to membership also oppose the tight affiliation to the EU through the EEA agreement, and their view has been gaining support recently.

From this point of view, accession of the UK to the EEA agreement could be welcome, as it could contribute to a politicisation of the way EU law is adopted into the EEA agreement. On the other hand, the Norwegian employers’ association has noted that the UK may weaken the EEA if it joins as a member.

The approach in Norway to the possibility of the UK joining the EEA can’t be separated from the larger EU membership debate in Norway. Many fear, or hope, that Brexit will lead to the sidelining of the EEA if the UK adopts the Norway model.

Hans Petter Graver is a Professor at the Department of Private Law, University of Oslo.

This article first appeared on the Conversation website. You can read it here in full.

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How roaming charges will hit travellers between the UK and EU in 2022

Trips between Europe and the UK and vice versa may well become more expensive for many travellers in 2022 as UK mobile operators bring back roaming charges. However there is some good news for all EU residents.

People look at their mobile phones.
How travellers between the EU and UK could be hit by roaming charges in 2022 (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP)

EU ‘roams like at home’ at least until 2032

First the good news. The European Union is set to decide to extend free roaming until 2032, so if you have your phone contract registered in an EU country you don’t have to worry about extra charges.

In addition to waiving the charges, the new regulation aims to ensure that travellers benefit of the same quality of service they have at home when travelling within the EU. If they have a 5G contract, for instance, they should also get 5G through the EU if possible. 

Under new rules, travellers should be given information about access to emergency services, including for people with disabilities.

Consumers should also be protected from prohibitive bills caused by inadvertent roaming on satellite networks when travelling on ferries or aeroplanes.

The final text of the new regulation was provisionally agreed in December. The European Parliament and Council will formally endorse it in the coming weeks.

UK companies reintroducing roaming charges this year

And now the bad news for travellers to the EU from the UK

Customers of UK mobile phone operators face higher fees when travelling in Europe this year, as some companies are bringing back roaming charges for calls, text messages and data downloaded during temporary stays in the EU.

This is one of the many consequences of the UK withdrawal from the European Union. Because of Brexit, the UK is no longer part of the EU’s “roam like at home” initiative which was designed to avoid shocking bills after holidays or business trips abroad.

The EU’s roaming regulation allows people travelling in the European Economic Area (EU countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) to make calls, send texts and browse the web using their regular plans at no extra cost. Switzerland is not part of the scheme, although some mobile phone providers offer roaming deals or special prices to cover travel in Switzerland.

Under EU rules, if the plan’s allowance is exceeded, the roaming fee is also capped at €0.032 per minute of voice call, €0.01 per SMS and €2.5 + VAT per gigabyte downloaded in 2022 (it was €3 + VAT in 2021). The wholesale price networks can charge each other is capped too.

The regulation was adopted for an initial period of five years and is due to expire on June 30th 2022. But the EU is preparing to extend it for another ten years. This time, however, the UK will not be covered. 

Which UK companies are reintroducing charges?

Three major UK network operators this year will reintroduce roaming charges for travels in the EU.

As of January 6th 2022, Vodafone UK will charge customers with monthly plans started after August 11th 2021 £2 per day to roam in the EU. The amount can be reduced to £1 per day by purchasing a pass for 8 or 15 days. Free roaming continues for earlier contracts, Data Xtra plans and for travels to Ireland.  

From March 3rd 2022, EE will also charge £2 per day to roam in 47 European locations, Ireland excluded. The new policy will apply to plans started from July 7th 2021. Alternatively, EE offers the Roam Abroad Pass, which allows roaming abroad for a month for £10. 

Another operator that announced a £2 daily fee to roam in the EEA, except for Ireland, is Three UK. The charge will apply from May 23rd 2022 for plans started or upgraded since October 1st 2021. The data allowance in monthly plans that can be used abroad is also capped at 12 gigabytes. 

O2 already introduced in August last year a 25-gigabyte cap (or less if the plan’s allowance is lower) to data that can be downloaded for free while travelling in Europe. Above that, customers are charged £3.50 per gigabyte. 

Other mobile operators said they have no intention to bring back roaming charges in the short term, but if won’t be surprising if they do so in the future. 

Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection Policy at UK consumer organisation Which? was disappointed at the changes and urged the UK and EU to “strike a deal on roaming charges” to stop companies “chipping away at the roaming benefits customers have become used to” and “prevent the return of the excessive charges people used to encounter.” 

By law, charges for mobile data used abroad remain capped at £45 per month and consumers can only continue data roaming only if they actively chose to keep spending. 

What about EU residents travelling to the UK?

In the EU, most mobile phone operators seem keen to continue free roaming for travels to the UK, but some have announced changes too.

In Sweden, Telenor aligned UK’s prices to those of non-EEA countries on May 1st 2021 while still allowing free roaming for some plans. 

Another Swedish operator, Telia, ended free roaming with the UK and Gibraltar on September 13th 2021 giving customers the option to access 200 megabytes of data for SEK 99 per day. People travelling to the UK can also buy a weekly pass allowing to make calls, send texts and download 1 GB of data. 

In Germany Telefónica Deutschland and 1 & 1 have extended current conditions for the UK until at least the end of 2022. However companies may keep other options open depending on negotiations with roaming partners. 

A1 Telekom Austria brought roaming charges back for the UK last June. Customers now have to pay €2.49 per minute for outgoing calls and €1.49 per minute for incoming calls if they are in the UK or Gibraltar. An SMS costs 99 cents and each 100 KB of data €1.49. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.