The EU-Norway relationship status: it’s complicated

In 1994, referendums on EU membership were held in two quite similar Nordic countries: Sweden and Norway. For Sweden, the join campaign won with 52% whereas in Norway the join campaign lost as it only got 48%. 25 years later, Norway is still not a member, but is part of the European Economic Area (EEA), while Sweden has been a part of the EU since 1995. With such small margins, one would perhaps assume that the Norwegian population is still quite divided and that a new referendum might be on the political horizon. However, last year only 22% of Norwegians stated that they would support EU-membership. While three of the nine major political parties have stated that they are pro-membership at some point, they rarely speak on the issue. There are various reasons why the discussion of EU membership has become a political hot potato and, in some cases even a taboo, in Norway.

Organizational resistance to the EU

One reason is that a variety of powerful groupings, that span beyond traditional political right-left divisions, are against Norwegian EU membership. A notable example is Senterpartiet, a centrist agrarian party that is notably the fourth largest in Parliament. The party has always been at the forefront against EU-membership due to the sovereignty transfer that entails, especially in the area of agriculture. To date, EU resistance remains one of the most significant elements of their program, and they are also against Norway being a part of the EEA. Furthermore, labor unions are powerful in Norway and they have often expressed skepticism towards participating in the European internal market as they argue it threatens domestic jobs and the safety and rights of workers. Another point to consider is the significance of fishing resources to the Norwegian economy. The Common Fisheries Policy of the EU has thus been contentious as it would entail governance of Norwegian waters by EU legislation and granting access to all EU fishing fleets.

A lack of understanding and influence

However, I would argue a very significant reason is also the fact that Norwegians know very little about the EU in general. Although this is the case for most EU populations, a lot of Norwegians are simply not aware of the particularities of the EEA agreement. It is often argued in Norway that participation in the EEA is preferable as it entails fewer transfers of funds and minimal loss of sovereignty compared to a full-fledged EU membership. Ironically, participating in the EEA and not being an EU member means exactly the opposite of those two things for Norway in practice.

Norway has no voting rights and has to implement all rules relevant to the internal market, which between 1994 and 2012 accounted for over 8000 pieces of legislation. While all EEA members have the right to veto any piece of legislation which could be considered as an instrument of influence, Norway has never done this. Our lack of impact was evident to me when I watched a documentary on lobbying in Brussels where a Norwegian diplomat explained somewhat jokingly that an important success indicator was how much weight one had gained during his/her tenure as ambassador as this meant that you had gotten to take multiple EU officials out to lunch in order to get word on what was going on behind the scenes. Moreover, Norway funds 97% of all the financial contributions to the EEA funds from the non-member states, which notably also includes Liechtenstein and Iceland. The funds are mainly intended to assist in the social and economic harmonization within the EEA, with the Eastern European members as the most significant recipients. Norway has even made its own additional contribution to the EU through the Norway Grants to further this agenda. (Yes, we have oil money and we are not afraid to spend it).