Today Open Europe argues, on their blog and in The Telegraph, that the Norwegian model is a bad model for the UK to pursue, and that the British government should try to negotiate better terms within the EU rather than leaving to join the looser EEA. In arguing this, Open Europe take the argument of those who support either the status quo or further integration - that EEA membership or a Swiss model relationship with the EU would lead to a loss of political influence but require high levels of acceptance of rules decided in Brussels - and uses it to support the argument that the UK can get a special relationship within the EU. The UK, the argument goes, is such an important market, and Germany and other northern countries want the UK to remain inside the EU as part of a market-liberal alliance, that the UK can win a place as a member of the internal market, but opt-out of pretty much everything else.
This misses the point of what the internal market - and the EU - actually means to the rest of the Member States.
Back in the winter, when David Cameron wielded the British veto on treaty change, there was a political storm over whether Cameron negotiated well or not, but also a wide acceptance that what the UK asked for was reasonable. I argued that it wasn't, given that it was reversing integration in the internal market and that it would run counter to even the interests of the more traditionally UK-aligned Member States. In the UK the EU is portrayed as a free trading agreement that has run out of control, but the internal market itself is more than that, and the fact is that the rest of the EU needs to exist to politically support the internal market.
The internal market goes beyond a free trade agreement and a customs union because it's not just about getting rid of tariffs at the borders, but about creating an economic and legal space where businesses and people can move and work and provide goods and services without obstacles being thrown up by different regulatory systems. This means that there needs to be some harmonisation and some mutual recognition of rules and standards.
Which brings us to the "European Social Contract". Yes, despite all the fallout and arguments of the Eurozone crisis, I would argue that there is a basic social contract at the heart of the EU, which is also important to ensuring that the internal market has the political legitimacy to exist. The internal market covers a massive economic space and its regulation has social, economic and environmental consequences. Given the post-war social contract in Europe - essentially that the state has a place in ensuring the social welfare of the people both as a moral duty (it's seen as part of "what the government does", and in order to provide a bulwark against extremism and social instability - and a crude deregulation of markets within a European space would threaten national societies and their identities. The social and environmental legislation and the elements of redistribution that exist in the EU are an attempt to preserve this social settlement while unlocking the economic potential of such a large continental market (we'll ignore the history of integration being seen as a way of ensuring peace).
While the internal/single/common market has been elevated to an article of faith in the UK, really it relies on the social, regional developmental, redistribution-orientated and environmental faces for its political legitimacy. Would the other Member States not only be willing to give the UK full access to the internal market and let it leave the areas that sustain its political legitimacy, but also let it retain its political influence in votes in Brussels? It's a hard bargain to drive to say that you will have full benefits in the areas you like, but opt out of all other obligations. I don't think other Member States would be willing to open up their markets fully to a country that will not accept its part of the European Social Contract. It's up to Britain if it wants to reduce workers rights and social and environmental protection, but why should the other Member States provide the UK with unfettered access to the internal market if it does?
This is not asking for second or third tier membership, this is asking for Free-Rider Status.
The argument that the UK is too important to the more market liberal Member States to let Britain leave - as has been argued elsewhere too - also forgets to touch on the UK's political weight and influence as a Free-Rider Nation. The UK - and probably its MEPs - would not have a say in the areas that the UK opts out of. What use is the UK as an ally here if it doesn't have a vote? This is another aspect of the UK's negotiating position that is just not recognised in the British debate: the more the UK opts out or talks about opting out, the less valuable and reliable it is as an ally for the other Member States. After all, why should you put your political capital on the line for a country that's half out the door and in little position to help you in return?
There's no such thing as a free lunch, and in the EU there can be no such thing as a Free-Rider Nation.
UPDATE: The Centre for European Reform explores the Norwegian and Swiss options in more detail.