On Monday, 13 September, Norwegians from the North Cape to south most Lindesnes vote on who will fill the seats of the national parliament in Oslo (Stortinget). Polls suggest that the election will produce a change in government, forcing current Prime Minister Erna Solberg out of office.
Since Norway rejected European Union (EU) membership in a 1994 referendum, eurosceptic sentiment has remained strong, with a majority against joining for the past 15 years. EU membership is not an issue ahead of the parliamentary election on 13 September. What is up for discussion is the agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA), making Norway part of the single market, and alternatives to this agreement. There is growing concern about Norway’s subordinate relationship with the EU, and trade unionists are critical due to the liberalised market and free movement of underpaid labour. The parties critical of the EEA Agreement—the Red Party, Socialist Left Party and Centre Party—are expected to make significant gains in the election. There will still be a majority in parliament in favour of the EEA, but also a historically strong minority opposed to it. Furthermore, research by No to the EU indicates that there will be a clear majority that is open to rejecting controversial EEA legislation.
On Monday, 13 September, Norwegians from the North Cape to south most Lindesnes vote on who will fill the seats of the national parliament in Oslo (Stortinget), as we do every fourth year. Polls suggest that the election will produce a change in government, forcing current Prime Minister Erna Solberg out of office after two terms and eight years heading various conservative coalitions.
The most likely new government is a centre-left coalition of the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet), Centre Party (Senterpartiet) and Socialist Left Party (SV), which also held office in two terms between 2005 and 2013. However, the Centre Party wants a coalition with the Labour Party only, and the election campaign has revealed some bad blood between members of the former “red-green” alliance. The Centre Party as well as the Socialist Left Party are expected to make significant gains in the election. They are quite closely aligned in their scepticism towards EU and EEA policies—ironically, considering their heated arguments on being (or not being) coalition partners—and both are opposed to the Labour Party’s very pro-EEA stance.
|Socialist Left Party||Labour Party||Centre Party||The Greens||The Liberals||Christian People’s Party||Conservative Party||Progress Party||Other parties|
|5.2% (9)||8.8% (15)||24.0% (46)||14.1% (25)||5.5% (10)||4.1% (7)||3.6%
|10.3% (18)||4.4% (0)|
Table 1: Average of national polls in August 2021, percentage and representatives in parliament (total of 169). Source: Pollofpolls.no
Norway’s “No” to the EU Is Mainly Centre-Left
Norwegians have twice rejected joining the European Union, in referendums held in 1972 and 1994. Eurosceptic sentiment has remained strong, so much so that in the past 15 years every single poll has found a majority opposed to joining. The most recent polling in June found 68 percent of Norwegians opposed to joining the EU (excluding the 8.8 percent who were undecided, source: Sentio).
Norway has in many ways thrived as an independent European nation, and on matters such as the environment, security and foreign aid is a global player punching far above its weight, given the country’s modest size. The Norwegian economy has enjoyed many years of growth stronger than the economies of EU Member States. There are of course a lot of challenges and areas for improvement in Norwegian society, but Norway scores highly in international rankings on a wide range of issues including gender equality, social welfare, even on happiness.
Polls indicate a majority in the electorate against EU membership across the political spectrum, from left to right. Some years ago, the right-wing Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet) also took a stand against EU membership, and the only two parties in parliament clearly in favour of joining the EU are the Conservatives (Høyre) and the Liberals (Venstre). However, the gravitational force opposed to the EU is mainly centre-left, as it was in the referendums, as described by Dag Seierstad (2014) in his book on the movement’s history and also German scholar Carsten Schymik (2006). This is still evident in the ongoing campaigns and statements of the organisation No to the EU (Nei til EU).
Growing Concern About Subordinate Relationship
Two years prior to the EU referendum in 1994, Norway and other European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries negotiated the EEA Agreement, making the EFTA countries part of the EU single market from 1 January 1994. This agreement was never put to a referendum in Norway as it was in Switzerland, where it was rejected. The EFTA pillar of the EEA consists of Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
There is growing concern about Norway’s subordinate relationship with the EU. A poll published by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) shows that support for the EEA has dropped from 68 percent in 2019 to 44 percent in 2021. It should be noted that the poll in 2019 was conducted by phone, whereas the 2021 poll took place online.
Other polls have indicated stronger support for the EEA than 44 percent, but NUPI’s Øyvind Svendsen concludes that their “numbers indicate a large potential to mobilise the electorate in a possible battle on the EEA Agreement, and hence neither a majority for nor a majority against the EEA Agreement would be a sure thing in a possible referendum” (Svendsen 2021).
|For or against EEA membership?|
Table 2: Poll on the EEA in 2021. Respondents were asked: “If there was a referendum on the EEA Agreement, would you vote for or against EEA membership?” Source: NUPI/Sentio.
The Trouble With the EEA
The EEA is controversial with trade unions because of the liberalised market and free movement of underpaid labour. Norwegian labour laws, collective agreements and International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions are subordinate to EEA rules. More broadly, there is a never-ending tide of new EU market acts, with some 13,000 EU directives and regulations having been implemented to date. Also, the scrutiny of national policies by the EFTA Surveillance Authority (ESA) in Brussels causes heated discussions. The EEA is affecting labour regulations and workers’ rights, regional policies, public aid programmes, transport of both goods and passengers, ownership restrictions in the financial sector, the energy markets, climate policies and other issues, including sectors that were supposed to be outside the EEA, such as fisheries and agriculture.
Norway has an array of agreements with the EU. The second major agreement is associate membership of the Schengen Area, making Norway part of the EU’s common external border control. Schengen has also been controversial but is not a major issue in the current election campaign.
Partners in Trade
Norway has historically, culturally and economically close ties to the United Kingdom. When the UK left the European Union, a substantial share of Norwegian exports to the EU also left the single market. In 2018, 77 percent of all Norwegian exports of goods went to the EU. In 2020, post-Brexit, the percentage dropped to 58.6. The UK is a major market for seafood and energy from Norway, as well as offshore services. What’s more, the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement is an interesting example of free trade without transfer of sovereignty to Brussels, and Norway (along with Iceland and Liechtenstein) has already negotiated a similar agreement with the UK.
Despite this, Prime Minister Erna Solberg et al. continue to embrace the same message: that Norway must have the EEA Agreement to sell goods to the EU. This argument has always been misleading. Norwegian industry had duty-free access on exports to the EU before the EEA—and this free trade agreement would still apply if the EEA Agreement was terminated.
Norwegian leftists are somewhat divided on Brexit. Some emphasise the right-wing elements of the UK campaign, and think this discredits the entire leave process. Others argue that as Brexit is now a reality, we should consider whether there are any new opportunities on how to handle trade and cooperation in Europe.
The main news outlets have focused on the difficulties of the Brexit process, arguing by implication that Norway is better off with the EEA. Brexit has so far not had any significant impact on the case for a Norwegian withdrawal from the EEA, but this could easily change as the dust settles and trade between the UK and EU returns to normal.
|Socialist Left Party||Labour Party||Centre Party||The Greens||The Liberals||Christian People’s Party||Conservative Party||Progress Party|
Table 3: The policies of the nine parties in parliament on Norwegian EU membership and the EEA Agreement.
Considering the Alternatives
EU membership is not an issue in the election campaign—it is obvious that the next government will not be sending any application to Brussels. It is also pretty certain that Norway will not leave the EEA within the next four years. What is up for discussion, however, is an official research project, or Norwegian Official Report (NOU), on alternatives to the EEA Agreement. This is a demand put forward by leftist parties—the Red Party, Socialist Left Party and Centre Party—and also trade unions such as Fellesforbundet, the largest union organising the private sector. The Labour Party does not want an NOU, but has not closed the door entirely. This will be a hot potato after the election if there is – as expected – a majority for a new government.
Controversy Over Energy and Public Railways
Norway and EFTA partners Iceland and Liechtenstein have the legal right to reject new EU legislation before it is written into the EEA Agreement. A key issue now is whether Norway should implement the EU’s Fourth Energy Package on clean energy. The Red Party, Socialist Left Party and Centre Party wish to reject all or most of the package. These parties also want to withdraw Norway from the EU energy regulator ACER, because they find the transfer of sovereignty to be too far-reaching. The Labour Party voted in favour of joining ACER, but was split down the middle, and has not yet taken a position on the Fourth Energy Package.
Norway is a major producer of energy. The European Commission wants to link Norway as closely as possible to the EU Energy Union. Hardly anything matters more to the backbone of Norwegian industry than long-term access to electric power at competitive prices. New and planned cables for exporting electricity to the continent and the UK are resulting in Norway importing higher electricity prices the other way. This is perceived as a threat to industry providing jobs across the country. The parties opposing ACER argue that the renewable hydroelectricity is needed in Norway to transform and reduce emissions from industry, and to phase out fossil fuels in the transport sector.
Another major EEA issue is the EU’s Fourth Railway Package, which makes tenders on rail transport—currently state-owned and state-run—compulsory, in addition to transferring authority concerning access and safety on Norwegian railways to the EU Agency for Railways (ERA). In this case, the Red Party, Socialist Left Party, Centre Party and Labour Party all wish to reject the package, as they want the railway to be in public hands. The Greens are also opposed to the EU regulations, fearing that compulsory liberalisation will make it more difficult to improve and expand rail transport.
The parties critical of the EEA Agreement—Red, Socialist Left and Centre—are set to gain many new seats in parliament. There will still be a majority in favour of the EEA, but also a historically strong minority opposed to it. Furthermore, research by No to the EU indicates that there will be a clear majority that is open to rejecting controversial EEA legislation (Nei til EU 2021).
The election on 13 September is shaping up to be the beginning of a more critical approach by Norway towards EU market laws and also the EEA as such.
About the author
Morten Harper (b. 1973) is research manager of No to the EU (Nei til EU), Norway’s main organisation working against membership of the European Union, and a member of the EU/EEA committee of the Socialist Left Party (SV).
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