Minister ‘arrogant,’ farmers ‘spoiled’

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Norway’s Agriculture Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum is “unbelievably arrogant” and Norwegian farmers are “spoiled,” according to elected representatives from member countries of the European Union (EU). They’re now threatening retaliation for higher import tariffs imposed by Vedum and the Norwegian government that further protect the farmers from competition and keep food prices high for Norwegian consumers.

Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, Norway's agriculture minister from the small Center Party, has been called "unbelievably arrogant" by members of the EU Parliament who normally support Norway on EU matters. They now think Norway has gone too far in protecting its farmers at the expense of consumers and fair trade. PHOTO: Landbruks departementet

Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, Norway’s agriculture minister from the small Center Party, has been called “unbelievably arrogant” by members of the EU Parliament who normally support Norway on EU matters. They now think Norway has gone too far in protecting its farmers at the expense of consumers and fair trade. PHOTO: Landbruks departementet

Six months after Norway imposed tariff increases of 277 percent on cheese, 344 percent on beef, 429 percent on lamb and 72 percent on hortensia plants, the EU Parliament is fighting back. In a blistering commentary published in newspaper Aftenposten on Friday, two EU Members of Parliament from Denmark and Sweden, who normally support Norway on EU issues, claimed the days of helping Norway are over.

Christopher Fjellner of Sweden and Bendt Bendtsen of Denmark wrote that they no longer will help Norway in important negotiations at the EU “as long as the Norwegian government doesn’t understand that these most recent, unilateral tariff increases are unacceptable. If (Norway’s government) maintains and builds up one of the world’s highest tariff walls, without consideration for its European friends, then it must learn to go it alone.”

Ominous message
The consequences of the punitive tariffs, pushed through by Vedum’s small Center Party through its position as a member of Norway’s government coalition, can be severe. Norwegian seafood exporters are once again fearing retaliation in the form of higher tariffs on their salmon, for example, and a spokeswoman for the EU Commission sent an ominous message shortly after the EU Parliament’s overwhelming vote that calls on the Norwegian government to roll back its high new tariffs on cheese, meat and hortensia plants. “The commission will take this further in its negotiations with Norway,” Fanny Daberstrand of the EU Commission told Aftenposten.

The two former allies of Norway at the EU Parliament, Fjellner and Bendtsen, delivered the toughest attacks on the Norwegian agricultural policy that Vedum and his party champion: “The Norwegian government protects spoiled Norwegian agriculture in the short term, but in the long term, the farmers risk becoming ever less competitive because they can allow themselves to demand high prices for mediocre quality and limited selection.”

Vedum himself, wrote Fjellner and Bendtsen, “shows a completely unbelievable arrogance towards Norway’s friends and trading partners in the EU when he said at the Center Party’s national meeting in April that he gladly would raise the tariffs even more if he could.”

Bad behaviour
Both MPs agree that Norway should be able to support its farmers, especially in areas where farming conditions are difficult, and that’s also a goal for agricultural policy throughout Europe. “And we won’t meddle in how Norwegian voters what to spend their tax money,” they wrote. “But is it vital for Norway to be self-sufficient in the production of hortensia plants?” By also raising the tariffs on them, to keep cheaper Danish-grown plants out of the market, the government “is only sending the bill on to Norwegian consumers and European producers.”

They and their colleagues at the EU Parliament were also astounded and angered by the government’s sudden imposition of the tariffs “almost overnight” last year, “without informing or discussing the eventual consequences with Norway’s closest trading partners (in the EU).” That’s why “many in Brussels are tired of the Norwegian government’s behaviour.”

Their message is clear: Unless Norway eases up on its protectionism, the country can expect punitive reaction from the EU. That can amount to economic sanctions, a higher price to remain a member of the EU’s inner market or a punitive tariff on Norwegian salmon,” they wrote. It’s naive, they claimed, to think that Norway’s tariff changes won’t have consequences on future negotiations between the EU and Norway.

Vedum remained unmoved, indicating that the current government (which is widely believed to be on its way out, given public opinion polls ahead of the upcoming election in September) won’t roll back the tariffs. It remained unclear whether a new, non-socialist government will be able to do so, since they’re already part of of the state’s annual agreement to support farmers.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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