New EU debate brewing in 'No-way'

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Iceland’s moves towards joining the European Union (EU) are forcing Norwegians to confront their own internal quarrels over EU membership. For years, the issue of EU membership has been firmly suppressed by two coalition governments split over the issue themselves. With national elections looming in September, voters on both sides of the issue are now demanding public debate once again.

When Iceland’s parliament, called Alltinget and said to be the oldest in the world, voted 33-28 on Thursday to start membership negotiations with the EU, it sent a chill down the spines of many Norwegians opposed to EU membership. Several anti-EU politicians, not least officials from the Center Party who see Brussels as a threat to Norway’s subsidy support for rural areas, had already travelled to Reykjavik shortly after Iceland’s recent and crippling economic nightmare began, urging Icelandic politicians not to turn in desperation to the EU for help. Norway’s anti-EU forces clearly didn’t want Iceland to join.

Meanwhile, many pro-EU Norwegians were happy to see Iceland realize that it can be tough for small countries to stand alone under pressure from international forces, not least a global finance crisis. They’ve wished Norway would also join the rest of Europe and be part of forming EU policy, instead of just having to react to it.

The significance of Iceland’s vote, though, has everything to do with the so-called EØS avtale , the economic cooperation deal that has regulated the relations of three small, hold-out nations in Europe that haven’t joined the EU: Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. The deal secures access to EU markets (important for Norway’s oil, gas, seafood and other export industries) and keeps the three countries in line with various EU rules and regulations, while allowing them to still feel free of EU dominance. Norway traditionally hasn’t wanted to enter any unions that could threaten its hard-won sovereignty in 1905.

If Iceland does ultimately secure a satisfactory EU membership deal and its population approves it in a referendum, Norway and Liechtenstein will be the only two left in the EØS pact, weakening it substantially if not undermining it altogether.The anti-EU forces are now downplaying the effects of an Icelandic departure from the EØS deal, while the pro-EU forces are cautioning that it can have major ramifications for Norway. Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, known to be a supporter of EU membership even though his own Labour Party is split on the issue, has said that regardless of what happens with Iceland, Norway will stand by the EØS pact, as will Liechtenstein.

Percy Westerlund, a Swede who’s been the EU’s ambassador to Norway and Iceland for the past five years, has no doubt that Icelandic membership in the EU would have major consequences for Norway. Westerlund, a committed EU supporter, believes the EØS pact will fall apart and he made it clear that Norwegians must tackle the issue of EU membership once again, painful as it may be.

‘Suffering from politicians’ silence’

“One of the main problems (in Norway) is that the politicians won’t discuss EU issues, perhaps because Norwegian governments have been split on the issue,” Westerlund told newspaper Aftenposten as he retired from his post earlier this month. “Another reason is probably the limited influence a non-member country (like Norway) really has.” He noted that debate and criticism of EU matters is “difficult when you don’t sit where the decisions are being made (in Brussels).”

Norway has an army of lobbyists in Brussels, not least because more than 6,000 EU laws and regulations now apply in Norway because of the EØS pact. Aftenposten recently reported that Norway actually has more resident lobbyists, so-called “national experts,” in Brussels than Denmark and Sweden, both of which are EU members. They’re sometimes viewed as worn-down but pushy lone wolves, arguing for their views on everything from food quality to tariffs. Aftenposten reported that most had no doubt they’d have more influence if Norway was a member.

Westerlund said Norway not only suffers from the politicians’ silence on EU membership but also from “a large and well-financed organization (Nei til EU, No to the EU) which has as its goal to produce propaganda against the EU.” He said Nei til EU uses scare tactics that often aren’t based on the facts.

Calls for the Progress Party to ‘come out of the closet’

His views were predictably dismissed by anti-EU activists, not least the head of Nei til EU Heming Olaussen. Even Olaussen, though, is now calling for open political debate prior to the elections, and for the Progress Party to finally take a stand for or against EU membership. His opponents agree, with the pro-EU group Europabevegelsen and Norway’s Conservative Party also calling on the Progress Party to say whether it’s in favour of EU membership or not.

Even though the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) is now the largest of the non-socialist parties in Norway, it has refused to reveal its position, saying that should simply be up to the people in a new referendum. It’s likely in a difficult position: Its conservative economic policies would suggest it would favor EU membership, while polls show 60 percent of its own members are against it.

Two earlier referenda, in 1972 and 1994, rejected EU membership. Public opinion polls go up and down at present, with the pro-EU side gaining ground in May, while a new NRK poll this week showed 53.4 percent against EU membership.