EU agreements unlikely to waver

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NEWS ANALYSIS: There’s been a lot of debate in Norway lately over the country’s trade and cooperation agreements with the European Union (EU), and a political strike was planned Wednesday over yet another EU directive. The debate is tied to a new study of how especially the so-called EØS-avtale (EEA Agreement) has affected Norway’s economy, politics and welfare since it was agreed 20 years ago, but despite some demands for alternatives, it’s unlikely to be replaced.

Norway is not a member of the European Union (EU), but follows EU laws and regulations as part of its membership in the European Economic Area (EEA). PHOTO: EU Commission

Norway simply profits too much from the EØS pact now in place, according to a long list of economic benefits outlined in the study by a government-appointed commission (Europautredning). The only alternative that could result in even more economic benefits for Norway is full membership in the EU, and that’s even more unlikely: Norwegians have twice voted against joining the EU, and recent public opinion polls have indicated record-high opposition tied to the current euro and debt crises among EU member states. The three parties making up Norway’s Labour-led government coalition also disagree on EU membership (Labour for, the Center Party and Socialist Left against), and won’t bring up the issue.

Norway now is, in reality, both inside and outside the EU at the same time, according to Professor Fredrik Sejersted of the University of Oslo. He led the commission and its study, and agrees with a Norwegian Foreign Ministry assessment that “Norway is as integrated in European policy and economy as any non-member state can be.” The commission’s own accounting found that Norway has embraced 75 percent of the EU’s regulations over the years. More than 6,000 EU laws have been included in Norwegian law, Norway has only sought 55 exemptions and its veto right has been discussed just 17 times, reported newspaper Dagsavisen. Several unions planned to strike on Wednesday to protest another EU directive regarding temporary employment agencies. Even though some feel the new rules will improve conditions for workers employed through agencies, opponents want the Norwegian government to veto them, to promote more full-time instead of part-time employment.

The imposition of EU rules in Norway has led to calls from the country’s more protectionist-oriented parties like the Center Party (Sp) and the Socialist Left (SV), and a long list of anti-EU organizations, that the pressure Norwegian politicians feel to appease the EU has damaged Norway’s own democracy. Center Party leader Liv Signe Navarsete, in comments that irritate her Labour colleagues in government, claims the commission’s numbers show that “the Norwegian people have been fooled” because the EØS-avtale that governs Norway’s economic cooperation with the EU has in practice been “more comprehensive that anyone could have dreamed” when it took effect in 1994. She continues to argue that far too many of Norway’s laws are, in practice, hammered out in Brussels.

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre (left) receiving the new study of the EØS agreement's impact on Norway, from Professor Fredrik Sejersad. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

The farmers her party represents, though, have been among those benefiting greatly from the agreements between Norway and the EU. They provide access to EU markets, allow the labour migration that not least Norway’s agricultural sector has benefited from, and have streamlined cross-border trade and investment.

The study notes that Norway’s economy has grown by 60 percent since the EØS agreement took effect, and employment by 25 percent. Unemployment rates have been cut in half and purchasing power has risen strongly. Norway’s oil, gas and seafood are among factors pumping up the economy, and Europe is Norway’s biggest trading partner. “The EØS (the Norwegian abbreviation for European economic cooperation) has been extremely favourable for Norway,” noted Sejerstad when he handed over the commission’s study to Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre on Tuesday.

Støre has been a staunch supporter of the EØS, as is his Labour Party. The decision to evaluate it was made at least in part to placate Labour’s government coalition partners Sp and SV. Støre was quick to claim that the study shows how the EØS agreement has provided far more advantages than disadvantages for Norway. The commission, for example, also noted that the EU has steadily beefed up its environmental and climate regulations and improved its social welfare policies, some of which have even firmed up the rights of Norwegian workers.

Most important, Norway has been been allowed to maintain its policies that aim to protect Norwegian agriculture, favour outlying districts and restrict alcohol consumption.

Støre wouldn’t promise he’d read the entire, thick report on Norway’s EU agreements that he was handed this week. His ministry claimed, though, that it “will provide an important frame of reference” for work on the government’s own evaluation of the EØS, which Store calls “the most comprehensive international agreement that Norway has ever entered into.”

Støre and a majority in Parliament believe Norway has been well-served by the EØS as an alternative to full EU membership. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has already said his government won’t launch any studies of alternatives. Demands from Navarsete and anti-EU forces to study alternatives, and possibly replace the EØS with separate bilateral agreements on individual issues, thus seem unlikely to be met.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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