EU factions mobilize for new vote

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It’s been 15 years since Norwegians last voted, for the second time, against joining the European Union (EU). The EU membership issue has continued to simmer, though, and now those on both sides are mobilizing for a new battle over whether to join. Many think a new referendum will be held within the next few years.

The “Ja” (yes) and “Nei” (no) sides remain deeply divided but agree on one thing: That a new referendum is inevitable.

“We must dare to mount a new EU debate in Norway now, before we get hit over the head because Iceland (long a holdout) says ‘yes’ to the EU, before Sweden starts using the euro or before the Norwegian economy suffers a new crash,” Pål Frisvold, leader of the pro-EU group Europabevegelsen told newspaper Dagsavisen this week.

He no longer wants to let Norwegian politicians dictate when it’s suitable for them to debate EU membership and put a new vote to the people. He wants to see a more grass-roots movement start up that will force the politicians to answer questions and confront the issue “honestly.”

Politicians have effectively kept the EU issue under wraps in recent years, not least because the current coalition government is deeply split itself on the issue. While many leaders of the Labour Party favour EU membership, their government colleagues within the pro-farmer Center Party (Sp) and the Socialist Left (SV) are firmly opposed. For the sake of government unity, the EU issue has been smothered since they took power in 2005.

Frisvold notes that Norway has government ministers who favour EU membership, but who are muzzled because a new EU debate now would be uncomfortable for the government.”I want to get tougher with Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre (believed to favour EU membership), to get him to admit how hard it is for him to conduct his duties from outside the EU,” he said.

Frisvold, however, claims that more than 40 percent of Norwegians “clearly” support EU membership and he vows his group will be “strong and visible” in its support for the EU.

Those opposed to the EU also claim they welcome a new debate on EU membership, firm in their belief that Norwegians will once again turn down any invitation to join. Opposition group Nei til EU (“No to the EU”) was holding its national convention this weekend, and planned to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the 1994 referendum, in which a slim majority voted against joining.

“If a new battle over the EU comes up, we’re more than ready to fight,” Heming Olaussen, who leads Nei til EU, told Dagsavisen . “We have more than 30,000 members, more than we’ve ever had since 1994.”

Europabevegelsen has around 5,000 members, roughly 20 percent of its membership roster 15 years ago.

Olaussen thinks the results of the next parliamentary election in 2013 will decide whether there will be a new EU referendum in Norway. EU opponent Hallvard Bakke thinks a new referendum should be set now, and he suggests holding one in 2014, when Norway will celebrate its bicentennial as a sovereign nation. Neither Frisvold nor Olaussen, though, want to set a date at present.

Those against joining the EU generally base their opposition on Norwegian solidarity, self-rule, market protectionism and fears of losing independence, especially on foreign policy and environmental issues.

Those favouring EU membership complain that Norway currently pays high fees in order to gain access to EU markets, without receiving any benefits of EU membership. Terms of Norway’s market access agreement, they argue, mean that Norway effectively lost its independence and self-rule years ago because Norway often must go along with EU directives.