Labour leaders lose on EU post veto

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The Labour Party’s national meeting over the weekend didn’t end quite how party leaders had wanted it to. Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre were  nonetheless putting a brave face on their defeat at the hands of party members, who pushed through what likely will be Norway’s first veto ever of an EU directive.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has widespread support within the Labour Party he leads, but he couldn't get a majority to go along with an EU directive to further deregulate Norway's postal system. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Both Stoltenberg and Støre, along with their fellow government ministers, wanted their party to go along with the EU directive, which would further deregulate the country’s postal system. The so-called postdirektiv, though, was more than a majority of Labour members could swallow. A grass-roots movement rooted in 14 county chapters succeeded in voting against the measure, meaning that Støre and Stoltenberg now must inform Brussels that Norway won’t go along with EU demands that Norway’s postal service give up its monopoly on letters weighing less than 50 grams.

It will be the first time since Norway negotiated its membership in the EU’s European Free Trade Association (EFTA)  that it won’t accept an EU directive. Norway otherwise has been seen as an obedient member of EFTA, going along with the EU’s rules in return for gaining access to the EU market. Neither Støre nor Stoltenberg wanted to rock the EU’s boat, but now they must.

Their defeat comes just a week after they entered into an unusual alliance with the Conservative Party to make sure Norway didn’t veto another EU directive, demanding storage of telecommunications records. The postal directive proved even more controversial, with the trade union confederation LO opposed to it for fear of job losses, along with a majority in Norway’s outlying areas who fear that opening up the postal system to full competition from private operators will result in poorer and more expensive postal service.

Labour’s two government coalition partners, the Socialist Left and Center parties, were also opposed. Without Labour backing the measure, it wouldn’t get through Parliament.

Kåre Bryn, secretary general of EFTA, told newspaper Dagsavisen last week, when opposition to the directive was growing, that it was “impossible” to know how Brussels would react to a Norwegian veto. He had said it was important to support the directive, noting that “Norway must remember that we have agreed to be part of the EU’s inner market” (without being a member of the EU itself).

Now it’s mostly up to Støre to deal with unhappy EU officials in Brussels. He refused to admit defeat, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the vote simply shows that Labour is a democratic party and that the majority rules. He and Stoltenberg had tried to convince their party fellows to support the directive, but will now front their decision not to do so, and try to head off any difficult consequences.

While some government coalition colleagues claimed that it now may become more common for Norway to veto other EU directives, Stoltenberg said he didn’t think that would happen. He confirmed to Dagsavisen, though, that his government now will use what’s officially called its right to “reserve” itself from the postal directive imposed by the EU’s European Economic Area (EEA).

Stoltenberg tried to downplay fears over the consequences, noting that the veto/reservation right is part of Norway’s agreement with the EEA that governs Norway’s EU market access, and therefore can be used. Erna Solberg of the Conservatives, who favoured implementation of the directive, was disappointed that Labour’s members voted against Stoltenberg’s proposal to do just that. She said his government will now be called into Parliament to detail the consequences of using Norway’s veto/reservation right for the first time in 17 years.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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