28 November 2014

Norway - 20 years inside and outside the EU


Exactly 20 year ago, on 28 November 1994, Norwegians voted NO to EU membership. Media marked the anniversary today, but besides that, Norway’s relation to the EU is only very seldom discussed nowadays.

This was different twenty years ago. The referendum was preceded by several years of fierce discussions, which often led to tensions - with friends or family members not speaking to each other for years.

The result of the referendum in 1994 was a close call: 52,2% voted no - 47,8% yes.

The No-camp played on the patriotic feelings of Norwegians, warning that they would lose their much cherished independence. They were joined by the extreme left, which saw the EU as just a capitalist project. Also the EU’s fisheries and agriculture policies were an obstacle for many.

At the yes-side were the country’s elites, especially business, but also most politicians, media and people with a university education. They believed that joining the EU was a matter of safeguarding the country’s prosperity. They were also afraid that Norway would loose influence if it remained at the outside, especially as other Nordic countries, Finland and Sweden, were joining (Denmark has been part of the EU since 1973). The Yes-camp failed to convince their fellow-countrymen with these rational arguments and lost the vote with a narrow margin.

As a matter of fact, 1994 was the only moment were the yes-side has been close to winning. In an earlier referendum about EU membership, in 1973, they got only 46,5% of the votes. Since 1994, the percentage of Norwegians supporting the EU has only declined.

Norway's prime minister Erna Solberg with the former EU
Commission president Barroso. Copyright European Union, 2013

According to a poll ordered by two newspapers, today, only 16,8% of Norwegians want to become part of the EU, whereas 9,2% is undecided. 

Among politicians, the picture is quite different: a majority of parliamentarians remains in favour of EU membership, also today. However, politicians rather avoid speaking about this: both the previous and the current prime ministers, while personally on the yes-side, said the question is not relevant right now.

This does not mean, however, that Norway is living in splendid isolation. There are French and Italian cheeses on offer in most supermarkets; Norwegians can travel freely to Europe - without having to show their passes at the boarder; students go on Erasmus-exchanges and Norwegians scientists are financed by EU-research money.

These things are all arranged through the European Economic Area and the Schengen agreements - allowing Norway to enjoy most of the benefits for EU member states, while paying less. 

Norway is for three quarters member of the EU, was the conclusion of a 911 pages thick report on Norway’s relation to the EU, commissioned by the previous Stoltenberg-government.

This also makes it difficult to argue for EU membership now. Why pay more, being forced to adopt the euro and change the support regimes for farmers in remote parts of the country, if you can also get the goodies without being a member?

Over the last decades Norway has only become richer, and increasingly reluctant to share its oil-kroner with lazy southern European countries. While Norwegians enjoy spending their holidays in southern Europe - escaping from the darkness, rain and cold up north, they do not have the biggest esteem of Spanish, Italian or Greek politicians and business men (obviously no women there!).

Only politicians and civil servants are faced with the disadvantages of being outside the EU - having to implement decisions that they do not have any influence on. This leads to quite funny, ghost debates in the Norwegian parliament about European directives, for example about data protection - three or four years after the debate was held in Europe, while everything has already been decided and enacted in Brussels. But very few people see the irony of it.

Most Norwegians could not care less. Only seldom it triples down to every day life, for example, when Norwegian farmers cannot sell their potatoes or cheeses as customers prefer the better-looking and -tasting French ones. Buying European is clearly more attractive to Norwegians than being European.

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