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Is a Norway model on the way: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

There is an interesting article on the Politicos website today which suggests that the Prime Minister is leaning towards a “soft” divorce from the rest of the EU on terms that “maintains close regulatory alignment” with the EU.  The language of this article has all the lack of clarity one would expect from a carefully crafted “Sir Humphrey” where the true policy intention is carefully masked by the language used to explain it.  However, the crucial point made in the briefing is that this “close regulatory alignment” between the UK and the EU is proposed as a permanent state of affairs between the UK and the EU, not just for a transitionary period.  

The Politico website is often used by political insiders to float policy ideas so it may well be that this is laying the groundwork for a policy change. The timing - right at the start of the Conservative Party Conference – will have been deliberate.   If this is correct, it represents a major change to UK government policy, as well as being a clear political victory for the Chancellor over the Foreign Secretary. 

It not wholly clear what any policy change along these lines would mean in legal terms. The most likely explanation is that the UK is looking to sign up to a divorce agreement under which it agrees to maintain all (or almost all) of the EU rules as part of UK domestic law after we technically leave the EU as a price for continuing access to the single market.  So we are divorcing from the EU but still living in the same house and agreeing to abide by the “house rules”. 

It remains to be seen whether, as part of this arrangement, the UK could still have the benefit of participation in EU institutions such as the European Medicines Agency but it may well suit both sides for UK medicinal drug regulation to continue to be undertaken on an EU wide basis as opposed to having a bespoke UK based set of drug licensing rules. I suppose that is like agreeing to share a single TV licence after a divorce or possibly agreeing to continue the same rules about who watches which TV programmes.  

So it looks as if UK businesses ought to start planning for a full set of EU rules to continue to apply in the UK for the indefinite future. That would bring a welcome level of legal stability, albeit, if all EU rules will apply post Brexit, it raises the question why the UK bothered to “leave” the EU in the first place.