Blog Post

Single market access from outside the EU: three key prerequisites

In relative terms, Norway’s current net financial contribution to the EU is similar to the UK’s. Switzerland and Liechtenstein pay surprisingly little, while Iceland is a net beneficiary. Relative to their population, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein received about twice as large an inflow of EU immigrants as the UK. These countries also have to adopt the vast majority of EU regulation to gain access to the single market.

By: Date: July 19, 2016 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

The new government of the United Kingdom has not yet indicated the kind of new relationship it wishes to achieve with the European Union. However, a crucial element of any new relationship will regard access to the EU’s single market.

Four non-EU countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the European Economic Area; Switzerland through bilateral agreements) have wide-ranging access to the single market. A comparison could be useful, so we look at three indicators which may be indicative about the conditions which the UK would have to fulfil if it wishes to get similar access to the single market:

  • Net financial contribution to the EU;
  • Net inflow of EU immigrants;
  • Adoption of EU law.

The main contribution of this blog post is a precise comparison of the four non-EU countries (partly based on novel data not available elsewhere) with the UK and some other larger EU countries along the above factors.

Financial contribution to the EU

Social and economic cohesion in the European Union and the European Economic Area is a goal stipulated in the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement. Thereby, the three non-EU EEA members contribute financially to this goal through various financial mechanisms. Switzerland also contributes to various projects designed to reduce economic and social disparities.

Upon my request, the Directorate-General for Budget of the European Commission kindly provided information about the gross and net financial contributions of the four non-EU countries to the EU (see annex), which allows a proper comparison to EU countries. The table below shows that Iceland was a net beneficiary of EU payments, while the net contributions of Switzerland and Liechtenstein were very small. On the other hand, Norway’s net contribution was similar to the contribution of the United Kingdom: it was somewhat smaller when expressed as a % of GDP, and somewhat larger when expressed in per capita terms.

It is also noteworthy that both relative to GDP and relative to population, the UK pays less than Germany, France and the Netherlands. The UK even pays less than Italy relative to GDP, despite the fact that Italy is a less developed country than the UK. The reason for the UK’s low financial contribution is primarily related to the UK rebate on the EU budget, which was introduced in 1985 in order to reduce the UK’s contribution.

The net inflow of EU immigrants

Both the European Economic Area agreement and the bilateral agreement with Switzerland ensure the free movement of labour, although Switzerland wishes to renegotiate this. The chart below shows that relative to population, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein received about twice as much inflow of EU immigrants as the United Kingdom in 2013-14. Germany also received more EU immigrants than the UK as a percentage of its population, and even more so in terms of the number of people.

It is noteworthy that immigration from outside the EU was also sizeable in all nine countries included in the chart (note that the data refer to 2013-14, before the recent wave of large inflow of refugees to Europe). In the United Kingdom, more than half of immigrants were non-EU citizens: an inflow which was fully under the control of the UK government. It was therefore a UK decision to let non-EU nationals come to work in the UK, probably because immigrants brought major benefits to the UK economy, as I argued here.

Adoption of EU laws and regulations

Access to the single market requires the adoption of all relevant single market legislation. Furthermore, quotes a Norway government report which says “Norway has incorporated approximately three-quarters of all EU legislative acts into Norwegian legislation” (page 6). And while in principle Norway, as well as other EEA members, may raise reservations, the study concludes (page 8): “Of the more than 6 000 new EU legislative acts that have been incorporated into the EEA Agreement, the use of our right to enter a reservation has only been proposed in connection with 17, and so far we have not entered a reservation in practice, although the first case may be on the horizon.

Switzerland is also obliged “to take over relevant Community legislation” in the sectors covered by the approximately 100 bilateral agreements that currently exist between the EU and Switzerland.


While the UK’s strategy toward access of the EU single market after Brexit is unclear, the experience of the four non-EU countries having access to it suggests that the conditions of access may involve:

  • Sizeable net financial contribution to the EU budget (Norway pays similar amounts to current UK payments in relative terms, though Switzerland and Liechtenstein pay surprisingly small amounts.);
  • Sizeable net inflow of EU workers and their families (relative to population, all four non-EU countries received about twice as many EU immigrants as the UK);
  • The adoption of a very large share of EU regulations – without a voice in influencing them.

None of these elements may look attractive to those who campaigned for Brexit.



  1. Net financial contribution to the EU by the four non-EU countries

The Directorate-General for Budget of the European Commission kindly provided the following table upon my request:

  1. GDP of Liechtenstein

Eurostat does not include EAS2010 GDP data for Liechtenstein, while ESA95 data is available only up to 2012. United Nations report GDP data in US dollars in 2010 and 2013: we converted the USD figures to euros, calculated the average annual nominal GDP growth in 2010-13 (which is 3.5% per year), and projected nominal GDP in euros in 2014-15 by assuming the same annual growth rate.

Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

View comments
Read article

External Publication

Economic Implications of Further Harmonisation of Electronic Communications Regulation in the EU

One of the ways in which the European Commission has sought over the years to strengthen the European single market is by means of increased harmonisation of the regulation of electronic communications. To the extent that the European Union functions as a confederation of somewhat autonomous member states, however, there are both practical and political limits to the degree of harmonisation that is realistically desirable or achievable.

By: J. Scott Marcus and Christian Wernick Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Date: August 11, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author


The EU and the US: a relationship in motion

Europe’s post-crisis recovery has been disappointing in comparison with the USA. But lower rates of inequality are staving off populism and bolstering support for globalisation. With the USA an increasingly unpredictable partner, the EU must address internal imbalances and build alliances to defend the multilateral order.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 28, 2017
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

External Publication

Review of EU-third country cooperation on policies falling within the ITRE domain in relation to Brexit

What is the possible future relationship between the EU and the UK in light of Brexit? The report provides a critical assessment of the implications of existing models of cooperation between third countries and the European Union on energy, electronic communications, research policy and small business policy.

By: J. Scott Marcus, Georgios Petropoulos, André Sapir, Simone Tagliapietra, Alessio Terzi, Reinhilde Veugelers and Georg Zachmann Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 5, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Can EU actors keep using common law after Brexit?

English common law is the choice of law for financial contracts, even for parties in EU members with civil law systems. This creates a lucrative legal sector in the UK, but Brexit could make UK court decisions difficult to enforce in the EU. Parties will be able to continue using English common law after Brexit, but how will these contracts be enforced? Some continental courts are preparing to make judicial decisions on common law cases in the English language.

By: Uuriintuya Batsaikhan and Dirk Schoenmaker Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 22, 2017
Read article More by this author

Parliamentary Testimony

House of Commons

Exiting the European Union Committee

On 19 April 2017 Zsolt Darvas appeared as a witness at the Exiting the European Union Committee, the House of Commons, United Kingdom.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, House of Commons, Testimonies Date: June 20, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Brexit and the future of the Irish border

The future of the Irish land border has been thrown into uncertainty by Brexit. The UK's confirmation that it will leave the EU's single market and customs union implies that customs checks will be needed. However, there is little desire for hard controls from any of the parties involved. This is especially true for Theresa May's potential partner, the DUP. Creative solutions are needed to reach a solution.

By: Filippo Biondi Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 19, 2017
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

The Mariel Boatlift Controversy

What's at stake: how does immigration affect the wages of local workers? One way to answer this question is by exploiting a natural experiment. The Mariel boatlift of 1980 constituted an ideal experiment - bringing a sudden and large increase of low-skilled workers in just one city - but results are still hotly debated.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: June 5, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Substance requirements for financial firms moving out from the UK

In the run-up to Brexit, UK-based financial firms are considering how to organize their operations across the future divide between the UK and EU27. This event will discuss the regulatory requirements on how self-sustaining the operations in the EU should be, and implications for the single market and third countries.

Speakers: Gerry Cross, Simon Gleeson and Nicolas Véron Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 2, 2017
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

Pharmaceutical industry at risk from Brexit

Pharmaceuticals are a hugely important industry for the EU and the UK. The sector creates thousands of jobs, billions of euros in exports, and is Europe’s most research-intense industry. But will Brexit mean for pharma? Border delays, disruption to R&D and regulatory divergence all pose hazards.

By: Jianwei Xu Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 31, 2017
Read article More on this topic


How the G20 should change its approach to migration and development in Africa

The G20 is redesigning its Africa strategy. Meanwhile, migration from Africa is an increasingly controversial topic in European politics, even though total flows are stable. Many hope that economic development in Africa will reduce migration pressures. But many African countries are so poor that increased wealth will actually accelerate emigration - by giving people the means to leave. The EU should support economic development in Africa, but Europe also needs to realise that migration from Africa is likely to increase in the coming years.

By: Guntram B. Wolff and Maria Demertzis Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 30, 2017
Read about event

Past Event

Past Event

Geo-blocking in the digital single market

Geo-blocking is a discriminatory practice that is wide-spread in EU. It prevents online customers from accessing and purchasing products or services from a website based in another member state

Speakers: Marine Elgrichi, J. Scott Marcus, Fabian Paagman, Bertin Martens, Georgios Petropoulos, Agustin Reyna, Gareth Shier, Werner Stengg and Roza von Thun Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: May 30, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

UK economic performance post-Brexit

What’s at stake: Almost a year after the UK voted to leave the European Union, its economic performance has showed mixed results. The risks of a Brexit-induced recession do not seem to be materialising. On the contrary, up until the end of 2016 the UK saw a continuation of strong consumer spending and strong output in consumer-focused activities. However, the UK economy is showing signs of slowing down in the first quarter of 2017, with weak growth in the services sector and business investments. In addition, strong consumption growth started to cool down as individuals’ purchasing power declines due to a weaker exchange rate. This leads to a question whether it is the beginning of the Brexit slowdown. We review the contributions made on this topic in the last year.

By: Uuriintuya Batsaikhan and Justine Feliu Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 15, 2017
Load more posts