Following the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, commonly known as Brexit, the country could seek to continue to be a member the European Economic Area (EEA) through mechanisms available to members of EFTA. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister has said that the UK government would not seek permanent membership in the single market.
Britain is currently a member of the European Economic Area as a member of the European Union. Questions have been raised as to whether a state that withdraws from the EU automatically withdraws from the EEA or whether such a withdrawal requires notice under Article 127 of the EEA Agreement – and, if the courts so decide, whether such notice given by the UK would require an act of parliament.
Were the UK to join the EEA as an EFTA member, it would sign up to existing EU internal market legislation that is part of the EEA Agreement. Changes to the internal market would be incorporated into the EEA Agreement subject to the consent of the UK at the EEA Joint Committee; once in the EEA Agreement, the UK would have to incorporate these into UK Law. The EU is also required to conduct extensive consultations with EEA EFTA members beforehand via its many committees and cooperative bodies. Some EU law originates from various international bodies on which non-EU EEA countries have a seat.
The EEA Agreement (EU and EFTA members except Switzerland) does not cover Common Agriculture and Fisheries Policies, Customs Union, Common Trade Policy, Common Foreign and Security Policy, direct and indirect taxation, and Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters, leaving EFTA members free to set their own policies in these areas; however, EEA countries are required to contribute to the EU Budget in exchange for access to the internal market.
A 2013 research paper presented to the Parliament of the United Kingdom proposed a number of alternatives to EU membership which would continue to allow it access to the EU's internal market, including continuing EEA membership as an EFTA member state, or the Swiss model of a number of bilateral treaties covering the provisions of the single market.
The United Kingdom was a co-founder of EFTA in 1960, but ceased to be a member upon joining the European Union.
In the first meeting since the Brexit vote, EFTA reacted by saying both that they were open to a UK return and that Britain has many issues to work through. The president of Switzerland Johann Schneider-Ammann stated that its return would strengthen the association. However, in August 2016 the Norwegian Government expressed reservations. Norway's European affairs minister, Elisabeth Vik Aspaker, told the Aftenposten newspaper: "It’s not certain that it would be a good idea to let a big country into this organisation. It would shift the balance, which is not necessarily in Norway’s interests".
Given the United Kingdom's referendum vote in favour of leaving the European Union and Scotland's overwhelming vote in favour of remaining within the European Union, the Scottish Government has looked into methods to retain access or membership within the EEA, and membership of the EFTA is another option the government is analysing. However, other EFTA states have stated that only sovereign states are eligible for membership, so it could only join if it became independent from the UK.
In January 2017, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, announced a 12-point plan of negotiating objectives and confirmed that the UK government would not seek continued permanent membership in the single market.
Under the EEA Agreement, the UK would not be subject to European Court of Justice rulings but instead the EFTA Court would resolve disputes under the EEA Agreement between the EU, EU Member states, and the EFTA Member States. The Court also resolves disputes between EEA persons and the EFTA Surveillance Authority, but there would be no right for a person to raise a dispute under UK Law to the EFTA Court.
If the courts say Article 127 does need to be triggered, there is the question of whether an act of parliament would be needed for it to be authorised.
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