No congratulations after British vote

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Børge Brende, Norway’s foreign minister from its own Conservative Party, didn’t feel he could immediately congratulate either side after Thursday’s dramatic election that toppled Britain’s Conservatives. The shocking results of the election also throw the Brexit process into more uncertainty, right after Norway was promised special treatment as an observer of the process with high stakes in it.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende has more reason to be worried about the Brexit process, and what it will mean for Norway, following the shock election in Great Britain this week. PHOTO: Mission of Norway to the European Union

Norwegians, who follow British politics closely after more than a century of close relations and kinship to the British throne, were as stunned as everyone else after Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May lost her majority in Parliament. She had called for the election herself, in a bid to strengthen her party’s majority and bolster the Brexit process.

It all backfired badly, and now the Norwegian government is also anxious and uncertain over what will happen regarding British voters’ earlier decision, by a slim majority, to leave the European Union (EU). That so-called “Brexit” will have a huge impact on the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS) that Norway leads, made up of small countries that are not members of the EU but pay billions to the EU to gain full access to its inner market.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported just before the election that Norway had been promised by EU leaders that it would get special treatment in monitoring Brexit negotiations between the EU and Britain. The British government, still led by Therese May as of Friday morning, must hammer out an entirely new trade deal with the EU itself, and then a long list of other bilateral deals and treaties with other countries since it will no longer be part of the EU’s.

“We will be kept informed (of the Brexit negotiations) and can put forth our own initiatives,” Norway’s govenrment minister in charge of EU issue, Frank Bakke-Jensen, told Aftenposten on Tuesday. He noted that Norway won’t be directly involved in the negotiations, but he’s been promised that those involved will be open with Norway and Bakke-Jensen thinks Norway will get more information than the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier had promised when he visited Norway last winter.

Brende with his British counterpart Boris Johnson in London last year. Johnson, who backed Brexit, has been expected to play a key role in the Brexit negotiations. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

EU officials have also said that Norway can latch on to any transition programs agreed between the EU and Great Britain as Britain makes its exit from the EU. The two other EEA/EØS countries (Iceland and Liechtenstein) will also be offered such favourable treatment. Norway is also boosting staffing at its embassy in London, to deal specifically with Brexit issues and debate within the British Parliament.

Now the entire Brexit process is thrown into uncertainty after May’s government lost power in Parliament instead of gaining it. An agreement between Britain and the EU is due by March 2019, with negotiations actually due to begin later this month. “We’re now unsure whether they’ll be able to start as planned,” EU Commissioner Bünther Oettinger of Germany told Deutschlandfunk Friday morning. Other EU politicians also fear delays because of the political upset within Britain.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Brende, taking part in early morning radio programs on state broadcaster NRK, admitted that he hadn’t sent any congratulations to May Friday morning since there were no winners in Thursday’s British election. Ever the diplomat, though, Brende stressed that “now we have to wait to see the final election results” and whether May might be able to at least form some sort of coalition government that could give her a slim majority. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, widely viewed as doing surprisingly well in the election but not well enough to form a government of his own, was already calling for May’s resignation. It remained unclear whether another high-ranking member of the Conservative Party, such as Boris Johnson, would challenge May for the prime minister’s post, which she was hanging onto Friday morning in the interests, she said, of political stability.

Others scoffed at that, claiming her call for the election and campaign blunders after that have created instability instead. Brende, meanwhile, sought comfort in a recovering British economy, although noting that it comes “at a high cost,” and at stability elsewhere within the EU following the recent  “successful” election in France and strong prospects for political stability in Germany.

“This all just shows how difficult it will be for Britain to get out of the EU,” Brende said on NRK1.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund