A Norwegian view: are things really so bad outside the EU?

The British are being told that leaving might mean 'the Norwegian option'. From our perspective, we're doing very well indeed outside the EU, and our people, by a big majority, have absolutely no desire to join whatsoever.

Ellen Engelstad
18 May 2016

Flickr/Shauna-Leigh. Some rights reserved.

In Norway it’s the elites that wants to join the European Union, while a popular union of farmers, fishermen, workers and urban leftists won the referendum in 1994 that kept the country out. It’s not difficult to spot why.

When the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen that ‘Outside the EU we would have no say, this is something Norway has experienced’, an answer from the Norwegian Labour Party deputy leader Trond Giske came quickly. Talking to the newspaper Nationen Mr Giske replied to Corbyn: “I don’t think ‘it can be as bad as Norway’ really works to scare people off. Norway is regularly announced the world’s best country to live in. We have had the lowest level of unemployment in Europe throughout the financial crisis. We have one of the strongest welfare systems, the least inequality, the highest safety and the most trust, in addition to peace and wealth. I mean: How bad can it get? What does Corbyn fear?”

Seen from Norway, this is a key question. Two times have we said no to EU-membership in a popular vote, in 1972 and 1994, and after each time the sun has just kept on shining even more on our glistening fjords. Now I know what you all are thinking: the reason is oil and luck. Surely that is a big part of the explanation for Norway’s financial success. But it is more than oil alone that makes a large majority of our population prosper, beyond our local elite of one per centers. If oil were the only answer, the people of Angola would also enjoy a general high standard of living. And if Britain taxed its 1% population like Norway taxes our oil companies, maybe Britain´s middle classes could enjoy a welfare state and living standards at the level of Norway?

Our own explanation of why things are running so smooth in the Scandinavian welfare states (two out of the three does not have oil by the way), is linked with a strong labour movement, compressed wages, redistribution of wealth, high trust, large welfare states that makes it easy to combine family and work life, and hence strong participation of women in the work force. If Norwegian women were to work the same hours as the average for OECD-countries, it would mean a loss of productivity of more than all our oil incomes, including the oil that is still underground.

We have our oil, but an organized labour movement has been much more important for our wealth than luck. It is a success story, a success story that the EU is steadily making it more difficult to learn from. It is of course possible to keep a welfare state within the EU, as Sweden and Denmark do, but it is still easier to keep public welfare when the service trade is not regulated for the benefit of large corporations.

The most important gain of staying outside the EU is not having the euro, like Britain. With the current low oil prices our currency is also going down, giving other industries an advantage and reducing the blow to the economy. Low oil prices and the euro would have been a disaster for Norway. In addition to that, fisheries and agriculture are also exempt from the EEA-agreement, sectors that were a big part of the resistance against the union before the referendum in 1994. Norway is a barren and scarcely populated country, but through national control over fisheries and farming we have been able to keep our scattered villages populated, thus securing a living in places where people have lived for thousands of years.

Our neighbour Sweden quickly became much more urbanized after joining the EU. We can also say no to implementing directives from the EU, and although our elites don’t like to do that, a grassroots mobilization within and around the Labour party made sure that we said no to the EU’s third postal directive. Again this was to ensure that all citizens receive the same public service, not only those in the centralized Oslo-region.

Still, all is not well in the valley of oil and roses. Norway is currently also facing a crisis due to low oil prices, and about 135 000 people have recently lost their jobs. Our current right wing government, led by Prime Minister Erna Solberg, is not keen on taking out the Keynesian toolbox to solve that. But as it is elections next year, most people expect Labour to win and do precisely that if the unemployment keeps being high. After all, it is what they did in 2009 to great success. In the Eurozone, with its demand for balanced budgets and near-zero structural deficits, this response is outlawed. And although Britain is not part of the Eurozone, austerity also reigns on the British islands. The toolbox seems to contain only a hammer, even when the problem looks nothing at all like a nail.

This of course serves certain interests, and to the Norwegian left it was quite clear which when Mrs Solberg said to the Norwegian Financial Times prior to the general election in 2009 that “the possibility of getting Norway into the EU will be more important than to take part in the new government”. It is obvious why she thinks that. With EU-membership she gets right wing politics imposed for free from the outside. Without it she has to take the battle with the left, and the population, every time. Standing outside the EU does not keep neo-liberal politics away leaving a social democratic paradise, but it weakens the process and leaves more power to local and national decision makers.

Now one might ask, isn’t Norway despite its welfare state also quite the chauvinistic and mean country itself, for instance in terms of refugee and environmental politics? Sure. But sadly as the negotiations with Greece and the refugee crisis have shown, solidarity is not a virtue within the EU, and EU-membership does not ward off selfish behaviour. And as for having a say around the table – that also rings pretty hollow from the outside. In the battle over Greece, it seemed as though countries could have their own opinion, as long as it coincided with the German minister of finance.

I do have great sympathy with the leftist that argue for reforming the European Union rather than leaving it, and I would gladly campaign for Norway joining the EU if it was a whole lot more democratic and led by solidarity. Right now however, it seems that a nation state like Norway has a better chance for warding of unpopular, right wing policies than those who take dictates from Brussels. Of course nation states can also turn right wing, but national governments policies are not made into unchangeable laws in the same ways as the treaties of the EU.

Returning to Mr Giskes question – how bad can it get? – when it comes to a brexit, nobody knows. However, the left should not be afraid to reject the self-righteous, neo-liberal elites of the EU just because they are not pure fascist. It is not obvious that it is easier to fight right wing extremism within the Union, as the transfer of democratic power to Brussels has caused a profound feeling of alienation from political processes. What happened in Greece showed that when the EU rejects alternatives to the prevailing austerity politics, it leaves a big political space for the radical right who attract many frustrated people. What Europe needs are democratic alternatives that takes peoples connection to and participation in their local communities seriously, while at the same time insisting on international solidarity. With or without EU.

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