EU’s negotiator vows to defend EEA deal

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Norwegian leaders seemed relieved after an all-day visit on Wednesday from Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator for a new trade deal with Great Britain after it leaves the EU. The Brexit talks will have a major impact on Norway, which will need to negotiate a new trade deal of its own with Britain as it winds up with a European Economic Area (EEA) trade pact that applies to a smaller EU. 

Prime Minister Erna Solberg had a “working lunch” on Wednesday with the EU’s top trade negotiator, Michel Barnier (left), who’ll be in charge of hammering out a new trade deal with Britian after it exits the EU. At right, Norway’s own minister in charge of EU issues, Frank Bakke-Jensen. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

“We had a slight hope of being able to sit at the negotiating table, but that was a bit of a stretch,” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) after meeting Barnier at her office in Oslo. Since Norway is not a member of the EU, it needs to rely on its current EEA (EØS, in Norwegian) agreement that allows it access to the EU’s inner market. Norway is thus somewhat “in and out” of the EU, as a non-member that still must pay large amounts of money to the EU every year to retain market access as well as abide by most all EU directives.

With the EU as its biggest trading partner, the EEA deal has been hugely important and valuable for Norway. It’s often criticized, though, by Norwegian parties and organizations with more nationalist and protectionist leanings. It also leaves Norway in a situation that’s sometimes equated to “taxation without representation,” because of the huge financial contributions Norway makes to the EU without having a vote on EU policy and regulations. The EEA/EØS deal, however, allows Norway to sell its seafood, oil, gas and other export products in EU countries, and for its citizens to move and work freely around the EU.

Britain made it clear this week that it’s opting for a “hard-Brexit” that will amount to a full divorce from the EU without an agreement like Norway has, along with Iceland and Liechtenstein, through the EEA. Solberg told NRK that the British seem to want full market access without customs barriers and free flow of labour. The EU is promising hard negotiations in return on a new trade deal with Britain, but Barnier promised to fight for Norway as a “third-country” in the negotiations.

Norway’s finance minister, Siv Jensen, was among all the government ministers receiving the EU’s top trade negotiator on Wednesday. PHOTO: Finansdepartementet/Tor Martin Bærum

“It’s a priority to defend the EEA agreement,” Barnier told reporters after having a “working lunch” with Solberg and her own new government minister in charge of EU issues, Frank Bakke-Jensen. “The relation between Norway and the EU is, and will continue to be, very close,” Barnier added. Because of the EEA, he noted, Norway is part of the inner market. “Norway isn’t big,” he said, “but very important,” adding that Norway is the EU’s sixth-largest trading partner.

While Norway won’t have its own negotiators at the table, Barnier claimed Norway won’t be stuck on the sidelines. In discussions with Britain, “we will work hand in hand with the EEA and Norway,” Barnier said. That reassured Bakke-Jensen after his own meeting with Barnier.

“We have clarified that what we think is important, is also important for the EU,” Bakke-Jensen said. It’s also critical for Norway to hammer out its own new trade deal with Britain: “Our first priority is to get an agreement in place with Britain,” Norway’s minister in charge of business and trade, Monica Mæland, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).

Then it was time for another meeting at the finance ministry. At far right, sitting next to Barnier, was Helen Campbell, the EU’s ambassador to Norway. PHOTO: Finansdepartementet

Norwegian ministers were out in force during Barnier’s visit. His program included morning meetings with Bakke-Jensen and Foreign Minister Børge Brende at the Foreign Ministry, before the working lunch with Solberg and Bakke-Jensen at the Office of the Prime Minister. That was followed by another meeting with Bakke-Jensen and Finance Minister Siv Jensen, where Barnier also said he would promote Norway’s interests.

It will be more than two years until the process is completed, which won’t actually start until Britain delivers its official notification to exit the EU. Barnier said two months will then be devoted to preparations and clarifications with six months set aside at the end to move the results of negotiations through the EU system and British parliament. “That gives us 16 months for negotiations,” he said.

Norwegian officials, meanwhile, will be following the process closely, with Bakke-Jensen saying it’s most important to maintain good relations with both the EU and Britain. That’s his highest priority, along with keeping the EEA/EØS agreement “legitimate” and strong, and maintaining alliances with other Nordic countries.

“I believe we must be ambitious enough to work for an agreement with Britain that will be at least as good as the one we have with the EU,” Bakke Jensen told NRK. On Sunday, he was heading to Reykjavik for talks with Iceland’s new foreign minister, Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, to discuss strengthening further cooperation through the EEA.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund