New day dawns for EU relations

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Erna Solberg promised better relations with the European Union (EU) before she was elected, and now her fellow ministers are following through. Her new chief of staff and “European minister” Vidar Helgesen was warmly welcomed in Brussels this week, especially when he indicated that Norway’s newly increased tariffs on cheese and meat will likely be rolled back.

The EU's flag isn't flying very high in Norway these days. PHOTO: EU Commission

The EU’s flag is flying a bit higher in Norway these days. PHOTO: EU Commission

As his boss Solberg prepared for her first overseas trip to EU powerhouse Germany, Helgesen traveled to Brussels to meet with the EU’s chairmanship and start negotiations on Norway’s financial contribution to secure EU market access (known as the EØS avtale, or EEA, European Economic Agreement). Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Børge Brende was back home in Oslo, defending on the floor of the Parliament the new government’s efforts to ease protectionist policies that can easily sour relations with the EU.

Norway and its fellow non-EU members Iceland and Liechtenstein have paid around NOK 14 billion (more than USD 2 billion) to the EU over the past five years to maintain their market access. The vast majority of the money, 97 percent, comes from Norway, and now the agreement is up for renegotiation for the next five years. The EU wants more financial support from its non-member trade partners, especially to help combat youth unemployment. EU leaders have also made it clear that they greatly dislike Norway’s higher cheese and meat tariffs, claiming they defy the spirit of more liberalized trade with the EU.

Vidar Helgesen, Prime Minister Erna Solberg's new chief of staff and minister in charge of EU issues, brought a new message to Brussels this week that was warmly received. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Vidar Helgesen, Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s new chief of staff and minister in charge of EU issues, brought a new message to Brussels this week that was warmly received. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Helgesen had already informed the group in the Norwegian Parliament that deals with European issues, Europavalget, that he’d be telling EU leaders the increased tariffs on imported meat and cheese would be “changed.” Both the Conservative and Progress parties that now lead Norway’s new coalition government had promised before the election that they wanted to reverse the higher tariffs set in place late last year by the former left-center coalition government at the insistence of the small, farmer-friendly Center Party. There’s been some confusion since, however, not least after the new agriculture minister from the Progress Party hesitated and then indicated there wouldn’t be any changes until next year, after the state’s current financial aid agreement with Norwegian farmers expired.

Helgesen, whose main job is to coordinate all EU-related issues, cleared up the confusion by confirming that the new government “has a goal” of changing Norway’s protectionist tariff regime, even though it may “take some time.”

That was music to the ears of EU officials like Linas Linkevicius, foreign minister for Lithuania, which currently holds the chairmanship of the EU. Linkevicius told newspaper Aftenposten that Norway’s new government and Helgesen as its new European minister “have a different approach, I think, and a more open approach and attitude towards the EU.” He added that Helgesen’s message delivered on Tuesday was “a good sign.”

Former government forced to compromise
It likely may aggravate former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of the Labour Party and his longtime foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, that the new Solberg government can more freely move forward with EU-friendly policies. Both Stoltenberg and Støre have long wished Norway had become a member of the EU itself and both adhere to the pro-EU faction within the Labour Party, but they had to compromise on quite a few EU issues when holding government power with the Center Party and the Socialist Left party (SV). Both are firmly anti-EU parties, and Stoltenberg gave in to the Center Party’s controversial demands for even higher customs duties to protect Norwegian farmers from cheaper and often better-quality imports, for the sake of government unity.

Solberg, meanwhile, has solid pro-EU support within her party and told foreign correspondents in Oslo just before the election that her new government coalition “wouldn’t have the same tension” on EU issues as Stoltenberg faced. While the Progress Party has waffled on the EU membership issue, it opposes protectionism and seems keen to open up Norway’s markets and liberalize trade. Labour and the Liberal Party (Venstre) will also likely support more liberal trade policies when they come up for a vote.

EU opposition still strong
Helgesen’s message to the EU predictably put Norway’s powerful farming lobby, the anti-EU group Nei til EU and the Center Party on edge, with Norges Bondelag promising a campaign to maintain the high tariffs on cheese and meat. The group called for an emergency meeting with Helgesen on Sunday, before he flew to Brussels, but the two sides reportedly didn’t narrow the gap in their varying positions.

The EU had promised retaliatory action against Norway after the cheese and meat tariffs took effect January 1, something Foreign Minister Brende also warned about on the floor of the Parliament on Wednesday. The prospect of a roll-back has dampened the prospects, but Helgesen is still under pressure in Norway to demand something in return from the EU if the tariffs are indeed reversed. That may come through the upcoming EØS negotiations, which was the main purpose of Helgesen’s trip to Brussels. He may be able to extract less expensive demands from the EU in return for easing Norway’s trade tariffs.

‘Good foundation’
Helgesen has also informed the EU that Norway will accept controversial EU directives that also met opposition in the last Norwegian government. That was warmly received in Brussels as well, prompting the EU chairmanship to say that Norway’s new approach to the EU was “positive” and “gives a good foundation for our further relations.”

While Norwegian farmers and other anti-EU lobbies in Norway think Helgesen and Solberg’s government are bowing to the EU, Helgesen repeated that Norway needs more active and friendly relations with the EU. As a non-EU member, Norway remains on the sidelines regarding many EU matters, not least free-trade talks with the US, and faces new demands for lots more financial support in order for Norway to maintain its own market access. Among them is the demand for money to combat youth unemployment in the EU. Norway’s wealth and energy resources gives it clout in Brussels, though, and Helgesen is faced with both using and preserving it, to Norway’s advantage.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund