26th Sep 2023

Norway's election sees new scrutiny on EEA membership

  • Which foot forward? Whilst outside the EU, Norway has enjoyed unquestioned membership of the European Economic Area since 1994 - all that may change at September's election (Photo: Karin Beate Nøsterud/norden.org)

After Norway's coming election in September, Oslo may get a government where the majority oppose the country's current European Economic Area agreement.

The European Economic Area (EEA) brings together the EU member states and three of the European Free Trade Area states (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). Established in 1994, it covers free movement of goods, capital, services and people, plus competition and state aid rules and horizontal areas related to the four freedoms. But it does not cover common agriculture and fisheries policies

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  • Prime minister Erna Solberg's cent-right government is a minority coalition. They need the votes from the Progress Party - which has become more anti-EU. They oppose membership, and want to renegotiate parts of the EEA-agreement (Photo: Magnus Fröderberg/Norden.org)

Looking at the polls, a centre-left coalition will probably win the election this autumn, and replace the ruling centre-right coalition of Erna Solberg. But that's not certain.

It will all depend on which minor parties reach the four-percent threshold, for a chance to win a few of the extra 19 at-large seats in Norway's parliament, the Stortinget.

This could decide whether Norway will be run by a 'Red-Green' or a centre–right coalition, which would have important consequences for Norway's relationship with the EU.

The red-green coalition, comprised of the Centre party (SP), the Socialist Left Party (SV) and the Labour Party (AP), governed Norway from 2005 to 2013.

In those years, the Labour party was the senior party in the coalition, polling higher than the other two parties put together.

But several polls in the last year have the Centre party closing in on Labour. This has sparked an intense debate surrounding the EEA-agreement.

Jonas Gahr Støre, Labour party leader and candidate for prime minister, has repeatedly stated that Norway's Nato-membership and the EEA-agreement will be untouchable in a new centre-left government.

Majority in government against EEA?

The Socialist Left party opposes both Nato and the EEA-agreement. The Centre party opposes the EEA. If their combined number of seats in parliament is larger than Labour, they will demand more political influence in a new government, than during the eight years Jens Stoltenberg ran the country. That means Norway could refuse EU laws that are EEA-relevant.

Since 1994 Norway has adopted thousands of EU laws. Most of them were implemented without much debate in Norway's parliament, or in public.

According to the agreement, Norway has the option of not implementing a directive. However, a Norwegian 'no' to an EEA-directive will likely trigger some reaction from the EU. This has kept different Norwegian government from saying no so far.

The picture is complicated further by the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), which has become more sceptical of parts of the EEA-agreement.

The largest trade union for blue-collar workers, Fellesforbundet, wants a new government to make plans for alternatives to the EEA-agreement. They want clarification on three options. First, a sort of Brexit-deal for Norway. Second, full membership and third, the current EEA-agreement.

The trade unions congress has been postponed until next year because of the pandemic. One of the main issues on the agenda will be debating the EEA-agreement. LO underlines that the agreement gives Norwegian industry important access to the EU-market.

But they do not like all the aspects of free movement of workers, because that can mean social dumping. The trade unions will be an important battlefield for Norway's relationship with the EU.

But if the whole union, with its roughly 800,000 members, demands an analysis of the country's relationship with EU, it will probably get it. LO is a major influence in the Labour party. It is the party's biggest campaign contributor and union leaders are board members in the party.

Such a demand from the trades unions will strengthen the two anti EEA-parties in the coalition.

Renegotiate a 'marriage'?

However, Støre does not want a green paper that explores the different alternatives. He and other supporters of the EEA are afraid that Norway's position vis-a-vis the EU will weaken if there are signals that Norway would like to renegotiate the agreement.

Or as he once said during a news conference: "You do not go to your wife and tell her, I want to map out the alternatives to our marriage."

But there are also issues that make the EEA a problem for Norway's current centre-right government.

Prime minister Erna Solberg's government is a minority coalition. They need the votes from the Progress Party (Frp), which left government after six years, in January 2020. The Progress Party has become more anti-EU. They oppose membership, and want to renegotiate parts of the EEA-agreement. Their positions look more similar to other right-wing populists in Europe.

Progress has said that they will oppose legalisation that is in conflict with what they call national interests. They have underlined issues like immigration and free movement of workers as most important to them.

Businesses concerned

The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO), Norway's largest organisation for employers and the leading business lobbyist, is very concerned about the negative focus on the EEA-agreement because it is so vital to most of the Norwegian business life. The EU is the most important market for Norwegian goods, from salmon to natural gas.

In a referendum in 1994 Norway said no to membership for the second time in its history. Polls show that more than 60 percent of the Norwegians still opposes membership.

On the other hand, about the same percentage say they would vote for the EEA-agreement in a referendum.

In parliament there is a solid majority for the agreement, but parts of it can come under pressure, regardless of the results of the general election in September.

Author bio

Alf Ole Ask is EU correspondent for Energi og Klima, and a former Brussels and New York correspondent for Dagens Næringsliv and Aftenposten.


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