One of the odder results of this week’s Norwegian election is that while it boosted the numbers of seats for the two parties that are most in favor of membership in the European Union, Norway is today less likely than ever to seek EU membership.
Together, the center-left Arbeiderpartiet (Labour Party) and the center-right Høyre (the Conservative Party) will hold 103 seats as the largest and second-largest parties, respectively, in the Storting, Norway’s 169-member parliament — that’s a larger number of cumulative seats than the two pro-European parties have won since the 1985 election.
But EU membership is firmly not on the agenda of Norway’s likely new prime minister, Erna Solberg, just like it wasn’t on the agenda of outgoing prime minister Jens Stoltenberg during his eight years in government.
One of the obvious reasons is that EU membership is massively unpopular among Norwegians — an August poll found that 70% oppose membership to just 19% who support it.
Proponents of EU membership argue that because Norway is part of Europe’s internal market, it is already subject to many of the European Union’s rules. (Norway is also a member of the Schengen free-travel zone that has largely eliminated national border controls within Europe) But until Norway is a member of the European Union, it has absolutely no input on the content of those rules. Stoltenberg (pictured above left with European Council president Herman Van Rompuy) has called the result ‘fax diplomacy,’ with Norwegian legislators forced to wait for instructions from Brussels in the form of the latest directive.
Since 1994, when Norwegians narrowly rejected EU membership in a referendum, Norway has been a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), an agreement among the EU countries, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein that allows Norway and the other non-EU countries access to the European single market.
Opponents argue that Norway, with just 5 million people, would have a negligible input in a union that now encompasses 28 countries and nearly 508 million people. They also argue that with one of Europe’s wealthiest economies, Norway would be forced to contribute part of its oil largesse to shore up the shakier economies of southern and eastern Europe. There are also sovereignty considerations for a country that didn’t win its independence from Sweden until 1905 — and then suffered German occupation from 1940 to 1945. Though Norwegians also often cite the desire to keep their rich north Atlantic fisheries free of EU competition, Norway already has a special arrangement with the European Union on fisheries and agriculture, and it’s likely that it would continue to have a special arrangement as an EU member, in the same way that the United Kingdom has opted out of both the eurozone and the Schengen area and has negotiated its own EU budget rebate.
Though Solberg herself is from Norway’s western coast, her party’s base is comprised largely of business-friendly elites in Oslo and Norway’s other urban centers, where support for EU membership runs highest. But that enthusiasm doesn’t always flow down to voters who support Solberg, and it certainly doesn’t extend to Norway’s other right-wing parties.
Solberg, who expects to form a broad center-right coalition with three other parties, will have her hands full reconciling the relatively moderate conservatism of the Kristelig Folkeparti (Christian Democratic Party) and Venstre (Liberal Party) with the more populist, right-wing (and anti-immigration) Framskrittspartiet (Progress Party). The Progress Party is agnostic on EU membership, and the Christian Democrats and Liberals oppose membership.
Stoltenberg, whose focus has been fiscal and economic management in Norway since 2005, is even more isolated on the left, with many Labour politicians unenthusiastic about EU membership and with the two smaller partners of his ‘red-green coalition’ among the most anti-EU parties in Norway. Some members of those parties — the Sosialistisk Venstreparti (Socialist Left Party) and the Senterpartiet (Centre Party) — actually want to pull Norway out of the EEA.
Attitudes to the European Union vary sharply among the Scandinavian countries. While Finland is both a EU and eurozone member, Sweden is an EU member that has retained its own Swedish currency, the krona. Denmark is an EU member that’s also retained its Danish krone, but Greenland, an autonomous country within the Danish kingdom, became the first political entity to leave the union in 1986.
Iceland has historically been hostile to EU membership as well — the country won its independence from Denmark in 1944 and like Norway and other countries, hopes to protect its rich fishing stocks from overfishing and EU competition. In the wake of its 2008 financial and economic collapse, however, its social democratic government filed the country’s first application for EU membership. But when Icelanders voted a new eurosceptic, center-right government back into power earlier this year, one of the first actions of prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson was to terminate EU membership negotiations.
Norway’s European saga goes back much further than just 1994.
In 1960, Norway was a founding member of the rival European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which at the time really was a rival bloc to the ‘inner six’ countries — Benelux, Italy, France and Germany — that founded the European Economic Community (the EU’s predecessor). A half-century ago, EFTA comprised the ‘outer seven’ European countries, including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Portugal, all of which joined the EEC between 1972 and 1995.
Today, the EFTA provides for free trade among just four non-EU states: Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.
Norway applied for membership to the European Economic Community in 1962 alongside the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark, but all of their applications were rebuffed by the veto of France’s president at the time, Charles de Gaulle. When Norway got around to considering EEC membership again in 1972, it held a referendum on the issue — despite the support of the Labour government at the time, Norwegians narrowly voted against membership (53.5% opposed to 46.5% in favor).
In November 1994, Norway went to the polls again to consider membership, and again, despite the support of the incumbent Labour government, Norwegians narrowly opposed membership (this time, 52.2% against and 47.8% in favor).