‘EEA agreement remains firm’

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Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has confirmed that the country’s main pact for doing business with the European Union (the EEA-agreement, or EØS-avtalen) remains firm as his coalition government seeks a third term this year. Stoltenberg’s coalition partners, often critical of both the EU and the EEA pact, had sparked speculation about a possible re-negotiation.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (center) still puts on a brave smile, as do top politicians from his coalition partners, but the government he leads is struggling to retain voter support. PHOTO: regjeringen.no

Smiles aside, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (center) has often had a hard time keeping his government coalition together and ensuring cooperation from Center Party leader Liv Signe Navarsete (left). At right, former SV leader Kristin Halvorsen. PHOTO: regjeringen.no

“Today’s EEA-agreement is at the core of our coalition government,” Stoltenberg told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week. According to DN, Stoltenberg was reluctant to publicly comment on the issue, but had enough of the speculation that arose after his fellow coalition party leaders created uncertainty.

The European Economic Area (EEA) comprises the countries of the European Union (EU), plus Liechtenstein and Norway, and was established in 1994 when Iceland also was involved. It has allowed Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland (which is now seeking full EU membership itself) to participate in the EU’s internal market without being members of the EU, as long as they also generally go along with EU legislation related to the single market except its laws on agriculture and fisheries.

Confusing voters
Norway’s anti-EU Center Party (Senterpartiet, SP), a member of Stoltenberg’s Labour-led government coalition, has particularly confused voters lately, after repeatedly refusing to answer whether it wants to rule for another four years within the current EEA-agreement or wants to re-negotiate its terms. The party is firmly opposed both to EU-membership and the current EEA-agreement.

Center Party leader Liv Signe Navarsete commented in December that she envisaged three alternatives; “Join the EU, change the EEA-agreeement or leave the EEA. The first is not an option.” This week, Navarsete had to concede that the latter two were not actual options either, allegedly after pressure from the prime minister.

“We have now established that the EEA this year, just as in 2005 and in 2009, will not stand in the way for a continued red-green (the incumbent left-center) coalition government,” Navarsete announced on the party’s website, referring to the government platforms in the last two elections four and eight years ago.

Meanwhile, the government coalition’s third partner, the Socialist Left party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti, SV), has not directly called for re-negotiation but also has made critical comments about the EEA pact that sparked speculation. It clarified its stand this week as well, by stating that “we wish to rule on the same foreign policy  platform we have today where we are a member of the EEA, not the EU.”

Abuse of power’
Henning Olaussen, head of the major anti-EU organization in Norway, “No to the EU” (Nei til EU), said he believed Stoltenberg would have kicked his two partners out of the government coalition if they had not put aside their EEA-resistance. He claimed the two smaller parties were “threatened to silence” by dominant Labour. “This turnaround is a result of raw abuse of power from the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet, AP),” Olaussen told DN.

The leader of SP’s youth party, Sandra Borch, who last year clashed with her own party leader on another issue, was tough in her comments. “The party leadership is contradicting itself. We have for a long time tried to discuss real alternatives to today’s EEA-agreement…,” she told DN. “And then the leadership cancels the debate because they’re scared that the Labour Party no longer wants to cooperate with us. I think it’s cowardly to be instructed by the Labour Party.”

SV’s youth party was also upset, but primarily criticized the Labour Party’s “bullying and scare tactics,” according to DN.

Stoltenberg demands consistency
The coalition parties’ varying positions on the EEA-agreement, potential EU-membership, NATO and financial policies were discussed and agreed upon when the three entered into the coalition partnership, according to Stoltenberg. The entire issue of EU membership, which Stoltenberg personally supports, has been put on ice for the sake of government unity, for example, since the coalition first won government power in 2005.

“We cannot, when running for election together for the third time, create any less certainty around these issues than what we had during the two previous rounds,” Stoltenberg told DN. “It is important that this is clear.”

He called the EEA-agreement “important for Norwegian companies,” telling news bureau NTB that “predictability and certainty around this agreement is therefore important.”

“Different parties have of course different views, but the government has one position on this matter,” he said.

Views and News from Norway/Aasa Christine Stoltz

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