Liberals switch sides on tariffs

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Norway’s Liberal Party (Venstre) has finally made it clear that it won’t contribute towards efforts to quickly liberalize trade, and reduce meat and cheese prices, after all. Party leader Trine Skei Grande was an outspoken opponent of controversial new import tariffs rolled out by Norway’s former left-center government last year, but now she’s torpedoing plans by the new government to dump them.

Trine Skei Grande, leader of the Liberals party, has called the reported surveillance "shocking," and is demanding an apology from the US. Other top Norwegian politicians are upset as well, with former government officials suggesting the assurances received from their US counterparts earlier weren't true. PHOTO: Venstre

Trine Skei Grande, leader of the Liberal Party, had opposed the new high tariffs, but now won’t help Norway’s new government reverse them. PHOTO: Venstre

The new tariffs have infuriated Norway’s trading partners within the European Union, because they keep their cheaper meat and many of their cheeses out of the Norwegian market. Other non-Norwegian producers are affected as well, and higher tolls also were placed on potted plants and other potential imports that would threaten Norway’s own meat, cheese and flower producers.

Grande was among those branding the new tariffs as another example of Norwegian protectionism last year, and she indicated all during the election campaign that her party would support moves to reverse the controversial new customs duties.

The Liberal Party opted, though, to remain in opposition in parliament, instead of joining the Conservatives and Progress Party in forming Norway’s new government. The Liberals nonetheless indicated they would be a “support party” for the government, and thus could have provided the critical swing votes needed by the new government to reverse the tariffs.

Changed their minds
On Wednesday, just before the parliament was recessing for the Christmas and New Year holiday weeks, the Liberals changed their minds. In a letter to Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug of the Progress Party, they wrote that she couldn’t count on their support for slicing the cheese and meat tariffs right now.

“Yes, we were against the former government’s transition from kronetoll to prosenttoll (a new means of calculating the tariffs, which made them much higher),” conceded Liberal Party spokesman Pål Farstad. “That doesn’t mean that we support a complete reversal of them now.”

Farstad indicated that his party still thinks the tariffs should be reduced “over time,” but now wants “a broad evaluation” of the effects, arguing that farmers need some sense of predictability after the tariffs took effect this year. Farstad hinted that the Liberals will “gladly have a dialogue” with the government on any future reduction, though.

Defeat, unless Labour comes around
The Liberals’ ultimate retreat on the tariff issue likely means defeat for the government, which already had signaled to the EU that the tariffs would be reversed. It also means continued higher prices for meat and cheese, and some plants, for Norwegian consumers.

There’s always a chance, though, that Labour will change its mind on the higher tariffs as well. Labour historically has favoured trade liberalization and good relations with the EU, but had to go along with the higher tolls for the sake of government unity with its two smaller coalition partners, the Socialist Left (SV) and the Center Party (Sp).

Labour no longer has any allegiance to those parties, and could vote along with the new government’s efforts reduce the tariffs, if it wants.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund