Labour rejects trade pact threat

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Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party has firmly rejected a move by one of his own government partners to trash Norway’s most important trade agreement with the European Union, the so-called EØS-avtalen. Støre was clearly provoked by the Center Party leader’s latest offensive, which may show just how desperate Labour’s troubled partner really is.

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party is a strong supporter of Norway's agreement with the EU, which an earlier Labour government negotiated in the early 1990s. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

The government coalition between the Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp) and its partners Labour and the Socialist Left party (SV) has been tense before, and Sp has run into trouble over mini-scandals and disagreements on a variety of issues. The coalition, though, has survived for six years on the basis that each of its three parties often must set aside their own agendas for the sake of government unity.

On Friday, however, Sp leader Liv Signe Navarsete launched what newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) called a long-planned offensive to once again raise its objections to the EØS pact, which gives non-EU members Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein access to EU markets. It essentially allows free movement of goods, services, persons and capital between the EU and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), of which Norway is a member. In return Norway is supposed to abide by most EU regulations but Norway has negotiated several exceptions including acceptance of its protectionist trade rules for agricultural products.

Jonas Gahr Støre and Labour's leadership also support the EU, here with the EU's Catherine Ashton at a meeting in Ramallah. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

That has never fully satisfied either Sp or SV, and Sp’s Navarsete used newspaper Aftenposten to go public with a claim that the trade agreement had left Norwegians in the dark about what it really involves. Navarsete, well aware that Norwegian support for EU membership is at record lows in the midst of the debt and euro crises, seized the opportunity to launch an effort to force renegotiation of the EØS agreement.

She claims the current agreement has forced Norway to abide by EU rules to a much higher degree than foreseen when it was hammered out in 1994. She wants Norway to keep being able to sell its oil, gas and fish, for example, to the EU but doesn’t want to have to accept all the EU’s regulations in return.

Navarsete, exploiting the current momentum against the EU and the EØS pact, also claimed that those supporting the EØS are part of a “political elite,” whereas she represents the “grass roots.” That’s a bold claim to make since Labour currently holds more than 30 percent of the vote while her party, which always has pitted rural areas against the cities, only has around 5 percent. That’s never stopped Sp, though, from acting with far more authority than its voter support would seem to allow.

Center Party leader Liv Signe Navarsete has disagreed before with the government's boss, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. She upset her Labour colleagues with her attack on the EØS pact just before the Christmas recess. PHOTO: Regjeringen.no

Her initiative, launched just before the parliament and government head off for Christmas holidays, was firmly trounced by Støre, who could barely conceal his irritation with his government partner. “This isn’t Norway who’s talking, but a party (Sp) that has meant the same thing since the 1950s,” Støre told DN over the weekend, a direct jab at what he views as old-fashioned politics that are out of touch with today’s more modern, international flow of people, goods and services. Without touching on it directly, Støre also knows that Navarsete has had a tough year and may be desperate enough to try to gain political points just before the government goes on Christmas holiday.

“The EØS is the foundation of our relationship to Europe,” said Støre in handling the government leadership’s response to Navarsete’s new campaign, since Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg hadn’t yet returned from extensive travels to Durban, Australia, the South Pole and New Zealand. “It has been confirmed in our government declaration and won’t be changed. Abandoning the EØS is not this government’s policy and won’t become this government’s policy.”

He acknowledged that Sp is opposed to the EØS agreement, “but lives with it on a daily basis, also within the government. It has served Norway well.”

Then it was Navarsete’s turn to say she was provoked, claiming that Støre tried to make it seem that Sp was difficult to get along with and repeating that “Jonas is speaking on behalf of the elite in Norway. Sp is speaking on behalf of the grass roots in Norway.”

The pre-Christmas conflict, which at the least resulted in Navarsete getting her photo on the front page of several newspapers and air time on TV and radio, is the latest in a series of squabbling within the government that raises questions once again over the future of the left-center government coalition. Støre wouldn’t address questions on whether the EØS disagreement makes another four years impossible after the next election in 2013.

“That’s speculative,” Støre told DN. “We have enough other issues to deal with, both in Norwegian and international politics.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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