Don’t look to Norway, Mr Cameron!

Many in Britain now suggest taking Norway as an inspiration for successful life outside the EU – but is the country's relationship with the EU really an example to follow?

Kirsti Methi
4 February 2013

Mr Cameron’s speech on Europe has fuelled Norwegian Eurosceptics with hope. At the same time it sets the Norwegian debate into a larger perspective – both for the EU-antagonists and protagonists. The larger perspective is that we, through Mr Cameron’s initiative, indirectly became part of the “future of the EU” debate, since Britain’s fate is being premised by “a different EU”. The fact that Norway (along with Switzerland) was used as an example by the British Prime Minister, connects us to this public reflection on Europe. Hopefully, the Norwegian EU-discussions will become more European in character as a result.

The Norwegian example

Norway’s relationship with the EU, anno 2013, is governed by a total of 75 agreements. The most important is The Agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA) which came into force on 1 January 1994. This is an agreement between the three of the four EFTA countries (Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein) and now the EU-27. The core principle of the EEA is that these three states have access to the Market - and vice-versa - through adopting all legislation that governs the four freedoms; goods, people, services and capital.

The major objective of the EEA is to secure full and equal participation of the EFTA states in the internal market. Important sectors that are not covered by this agreement are the EU common policies on agriculture, fisheries as well as regional policy. The other agreements in the Norway-EU relation cover a number of sectors such as police cooperation, immigration, foreign, security and defence policy, regional policy, agriculture and fisheries etc. Also, the EEA agreement paves the way for extensive participation in many programs of the EU.

Last year, a comprehensive report on Norway’s relations with the EU was published. The objective was to provide an overview of Norway’s various agreements and associations with the EU over the last twenty years. The report analyses the scope, implications and consequences of the multiple agreements, including the democratic, constitutional, political and administrative challenges that this patchwork of agreements create for Norwegian society.

One of the key findings in the report is that “Norway has incorporated approximately three-quarters of all EU-legislative acts and has implemented them more effectively than many EU member states. At the same time, Norway is neither a member of the EU nor involved in the decision-making processes to any significant extent. […] Norway’s relationship with the EU is based on association without membership”.

Our special kind of association and participation in the EU is not without cost. Norway has to pay to participate in all EU programmes and EU agencies. In addition, the EEA agreement includes a special fund called the EEA grant. This is the EFTA countries' contribution to reduce social and economic disparities in the EU. For the period 2009 – 2014, Norway pays 97% of the €1.79 billion secured under this grant.

The bottom line of Norway’s relation with the EU is this: adopting EU legislation, adapting to the rules of play and paying for our participation, but staying out of the political discussions and decision-making.

Norwegian Euroscepticism 

Norway has applied for EU membership four times; in 1962, 1967, 1972 and 1994. In 1972 and 1994 referendums were held, with a negative outcome. Although the outcome was fairly narrow in both referendums, Euroscepticism has since then continued to grow and at present (January 2013) opinion polls indicate that seven out of ten Norwegians would say no were they to vote today.

Why so negative? There is no single answer to this question. Historical explanation such as Norway being colonised by respectively Denmark and Sweden for more than 500 years, is part of the story. Norway got its independence in 1905, and as a relatively young nation, sovereignty is basically understood and strongly protected as a national concept. The EU mechanism to shift various degrees of power from the national level to the EU institutions is seen with suspicion and as a major democratic problem.

A second aspect is geography; the distance between the north and the south in Norway is approximately 2000 km. People living in the peripheral regions already feel far from Oslo, our national decision-making centre. Brussels is almost yet another 2000 km from Oslo and this distance is experienced as some type of alienation. 

And last, but not least, the economy. Norway’s main sources of income are to a large extent based on natural resources such as oil, gas and fish. These resources and their export to European markets are also the major reason for Norway’s present wealth. The fear of losing control over natural resources is a strong argument in the no-to-the-EU discourse. Images such as “Norwegian fjords being invaded by Spanish and Portuguese fishing boats” are being used as what we can expect in the event of EU membership. The country’s oil driven economy has led to a situation with low unemployment (3.5 percent), no public debt and generous social welfare schemes.

The shape of Norway’s economy and the abundance of social welfare make Norway rather self-congratulatory; why should we waste our money on EU countries where people don’t even pay taxes? Observing what is happening in some of the EU member states has led to a popular statement: “Thank God, we’re not in”. Indeed some people truly believe Norwegians are God’s chosen people.


But the truth is this; we are more in than out. Referring to the abovementioned report; we are three quarters integrated in the European Union. When it comes to justice and home affairs, Norway is more “in” than the UK, because Norway is a party to the Schengen agreement (since 1999). And there are other examples of Norway being more integrated than certain “opt-out” member states, like Denmark for instance. 

Despite the well documented fact that Norway is more on the inside than on the outside of the EU, Norwegians still seem to collectively believe in the “being on the outside”- story. Yes – formally we are not a member, but in practical terms, we are as EU-integrated as most member states. The only difference is that we have neither representation in the European Parliament (EP), nor in the Council of Ministers. Norway accepts being conducted by the EU without having a voice that can sing in the choir. We just have to make sure the song is sung in Norway – respecting the fact that the words and the melody as composed by the EU.

For a country with high democratic standards, it is a paradox that every Norwegian parliament and every government since 1994 has accepted the EEA-logic; participation without representation. That is why the “no-battle” in Norway is not only about fighting against EU-membership any more. The EEA agreement is not loved by anyone for its democratic deficit, but it is highly appreciated as a necessary and important agreement, especially for Norwegian business. In addition, it is an agreement that connects the larger part of the Norwegian society into cooperation schemes and networks in the EU, which gives us the possibility to learn, share, develop and grow in a European context.  

Why should the UK not look to Norway?

Norway’s agreement with the EU gives us market access, but the political price we pay is that of being an underdog and an outsider in all arenas where the most important policies and decisions are made for the European continent. It is likely that Britain’s history, size and role as a big and significant country would suffer from such a marginalization in Europe.     

Norway’s position as a “successful outsider” is based on an extremely favourable economic situation. This situation is premised on marked access to Europe for our export products through the EEA. The result is the delusion that our wealth and economic success is a result of our own national efforts, and this adds to our conviction of not needing to be a part of the EU.      

Cameron’s speech proves the need for Britain to stay a member of the EU; a strong and confident voice pointing at the need for necessary EU reforms from the inside. The most constructive and efficient method of influencing policy is still to be there when the discussions take place. The best deal for Britain – and all European states – is to play the “we-card”. That is best done as a full member of the EU and the only response for Europe in a globalised, new world order. The Norwegian example is about reaping the fruits of the political efforts done by member states and the EU institutions and compromising basic democratic principles. It is definitely not an example to be followed. Please look for another way!     

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