More overtures from Erna to EU

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Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her new conservative government set off for Brussels this week on what Norwegians might call a “charm offensive.” She’s determined to mend relations after Norway’s hike in import tariffs last year angered the EU, and she’s already promised much more “active European policies” based on an even more friendly approach.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (pointing) met with Prime Minister Erna Solberg in Brussels on Tuesday. Between them is Solberg's chief of staff and minister in charge of EU issues, Vidar Helgesen, who had also been in Brussels just a week ago. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Juha Roininen/EUP Images

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (pointing) met with Prime Minister Erna Solberg (also pointing, at left) in Brussels on Tuesday. Between them is Solberg’s chief of staff and minister in charge of EU issues, Vidar Helgesen, who had also been in Brussels late last month. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Juha Roininen/EUP Images

“When the former government (which adopted the higher tariffs for meat, cheese and garden plants) said that this wasn’t something the EU was preoccupied with, that’s just nonsense,” Solberg told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) while on board the government’s private jet, en route to Brussels.  “If they didn’t hear anything when they had meetings with the EU, they must have been very hard of hearing.”

Solberg said that the tariffs, aimed at protecting Norwegian products by keeping cheaper and often better-quality products from the EU out of the market, have provoked the EU far more than Norwegians realize, and clearly more than the former government admitted. Solberg was prepared for questions about the tariffs when she met EU bosses Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, and her government already has signaled that it intends to roll the tariffs back.

Solberg also spoke with Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Juha Roininen/EUP Images

Solberg also spoke with Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Juha Roininen/EUP Images

She faces opposition in parliament from politicians eager to maintain Norwegian protectionism and keep prices high, for the sake of local jobs and income levels. They’ve already accused Solberg of being too servile towards the EU. Solberg seems undaunted. She also claims neither she nor her new chief of staff and “EU minister” Vidar Helgesen have made any promises to EU leaders, but she can understand why the higher tolls have sparked irritation among European trading partners. And that, she says, “wears down Norway’s good will in the EU.”

Her meeting with Barroso, though, was upbeat, with Barroso himself claiming that relations between the EU and Norway aren’t just good, they’re excellent. Barroso, president of the EU Commission, nonetheless noted that Norway benefits greatly from its integration into the world’s largest inner market. He and his EU colleagues are expecting hefty financial support from Norway to help the EU address social and economic challenges, not least high unemployment levels.

The financial support comes in the form of the so-called EØS-avtale, the economic cooperation agreement that allows Norway and other non-EU member Iceland and Liechtenstein access to the EU market. Norway has provided the lion’s share of the more than NOK 14 billion (EUR 1.7 billion) paid to the EU during its past five-year term, and it’s now up for renegotiation. In addition to Solberg and her new fellow ministers’ desire to pay courtesy calls on EU leaders, their need to pay the EU itself is the main reason for the steady stream of travel to Brussels recently.

The EU wants more money from Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein this time around, given its troubled economy, while Solberg told news bureau NTB that the Norwegians feel they were generous the last time around and “we don’t see a need that we should increase that.” She declined to reveal additional negotiating tactics.

She, Barroso and Van Rompuy also discussed issues from energy to asylum policies, and Norway is willing to help ease challenges tied to the flood of refugees trying to enter Europe in the Mediterranean area. Barroso said he welcomed the new Norwegian government’s more positive approach to the EU, after eight years of a left-center government coalition that included two anti-EU parties that have helped keep Norway from joining the EU.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund