EU blasts Norway’s protectionism

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The EU Parliament has overwhelmingly approved a measure calling for the Norwegian government to cut its new, high import tariffs on cheese, meat and hortensia plants. EU parliamentarians, who are elected representatives from all countries in the European Union, claim Norway’s tariffs amount to pure protectionism, defy the spirit of free trade and are “not what the union expected from a friend and neighbour.”

Norway is not a member of the European Union (EU), but follows EU laws and regulations as part of its membership in the European Economic Area (EEA). PHOTO: EU Commission

Norway is not a member of the European Union (EU), but follows EU laws and regulations as part of its membership in the European Economic Area (EEA). Norway has now angered a vast majority of elected representatives from EU countries because of its efforts to protect Norwegian agriculture from European competition. PHOTO: EU Commission

The punitive tariffs were imposed at the insistence of the small Center Party, a member of Norway’s coalition government that was desperate last year to retain support from its farming consitutuency. Labour, which leads the government, went along with the move to protect Norwegian-produced “hard cheeses” like Jarlsberg and Norvegia from competition, despite strong protests and criticism from the EU. Now the EU is clearly fighting back.

Damaged trade and consumers
Cheese imports from the EU that were hit by the tariff, including Gouda and cheddar, became almost three times more expensive when the tariffs took effect January 1, driving many brands out of the Norwegian market. EU politicians claim the punitive tariffs have damaged trade and not least Norwegian consumers, and kept European cheeses out of the Norwegian market at a time when Europe needs all the trade it can get because of its economic crisis.

Norway, on the other hand, retains a strong economy, EU parliamentarians argued, should be able to tolerate competition and reopen its market to European meat, cheese and the hortensia plants that were hit with a 72 percent tariff that enraged Danish exporters.

The EU parliamentarians mounted an unusually strong and united front against Norway on Thursday, sending what’s being called “a strong political signal” not only to the Norwegian government but also to the EU Commission, which plays an important role in a variety of issues regulating Norway’s relations to the EU. If Norway fails to roll back its protectionist tariffs, “there will be consequences” for Norway in other areas, vow top EU leaders, noting that Norway needs to constantly negotiate with the EU on everything from economic issues to foreign policy, security and defense issues.

Complaints ignored
Agriculture Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, a farmer himself from the Center Party, was unrepentant. “Norwegian food and agriculture policies are fortunately not dictated from Brussels,” Vedum told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) right after the EU vote.

Vedum claims his government was within its rights to raise import tariffs, to further protect Norwegian agriculture, and he seemed unmoved by the massive criticism directed against both the Norwegian government and him personally. Vedum, who’s being called  “unbelievably arrogant” even by EU MPs from neighbouring Sweden and Denmark, maintained that Norway “has a good dialogue with the EU Commission, even though we have different views in some areas.”

If a new, non-socialist government is elected in September, it’s possible the tariffs will be rolled back. The Conservative Party already has stated that it agrees the higher tariffs are protectionist and limit Norwegian consumers’ choices, and that they defy Norway’s stated commitment to ease trade restrictions. Its potential government partners largely agree, but even free trade advocates within the Conservatives said it may be difficult to reverse the tariffs put in place by the current left-center government. They’ve already become part of the state’s agreement with Norwegian farmers and it may be “complicated” to change that.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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