EU opposition still runs strong

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Twenty years after Norwegians voted against joining the European Union (EU) for the second time, opposition to membership in the EU is much stronger than it was then. New public opinion polls show a solid majority saying they’d vote “no” again.

PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Juha Roininen/EUP Images

Norway’s flag flies at EU headquarters in Brussels when Norwegian officials are visiting, but Norway remains firmly on the outside despite sending billions in financial support to the EU every year. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Juha Roininen/EUP Images

In a new poll conducted by research firm InFact for newspaper VG, for example, fully 63 percent of Norwegians questioned said they were negative to joining the EU. Only 25 percent were positive. VG reported that if the remaining 12 percent who said they were unsure are removed from the total respondents, the result would be 72 percent against the EU and 28 percent in favour.

On November 28, 1994, when the last referendum on EU membership was held in Norway, the vote was much closer: 52.2 percent voted “no” and 47.8 percent voted “yes.” That suggests the number of Norwegians who once wanted to join the EU has since cut in half.

Other polls also show strong opposition to the EU, so strong that the membership issue remains unlikely to be revived and brought up for new debate among politicians. Norway’s Conservative Party (Høyre), which leads the country’s current coalition government, still wants to join but can’t drum up support from its coalition partners, much less the opposition parties in Parliament.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited the EU and its top officials shortly after taking office last year, but hasn't been able to convince Norwegians to join. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Juha Roininen/EUP Images

Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited the EU and its top officials shortly after taking office last year, but hasn’t been able to convince Norwegians to join. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Juha Roininen/EUP Images

In the years immediately following the 1994 referendum, Norway’s leading politicians at the time who had favoured EU membership were so humbled by the people’s no-vote that the issue was buried on both ends of the political spectrum. Both the head of the Labour Party, which held government power in 1994, and top Conservatives had promoted EU membership, arguing that Norway needed to finally become part of the “European fellowship” after turning down membership in the EU’s forerunner, the European Community, in an earlier referendum in 1972. The voters defied them.

Unsuccessful revival efforts
There were some attempts to revive the EU debate around 10 years later, but they didn’t get far. The issue also was put on ice for the entire eight years of the former left-center government coalition’s two terms in office, from 2005 to 2009. Even though Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre were EU-friendly, they were forced to bury the issue once again for the sake of government unity with Labour’s two coalition partners, the firmly anti-EU Center Party and the Socialist Left party (SV).

EU membership barely came up during last year’s election campaign, either, after polls in recent years had at times shown as many as 80 percent of Norwegians opposed to joining. Much of that sentiment, however, was linked to the serious economic problems facing the EU after the finance crisis hit in 2008. Norwegians seemed happy, almost smug, that they’d stayed out of the EU and didn’t have to suffer the consequences of the euro crisis and huge debts among EU member states like Greece.

Paying and complying with EU rules nonetheless
Norway remains obligated, however, to make huge payments to the EU in order to secure market access. Many argue that Norway thus faces a situation similar to taxation without representation, since Norwegian politicians and diplomats are left sitting in the corridor when EU officials vote on important issues.

Norway also generally has to go along with EU regulations, again to be able to keep selling its oil, fish and other export products to EU members. Vidar Helgesen of the Conservatives, Norway’s government minister in charge of dealing with the EU, has made no secret of the fact that he faces very tough negotiations in agreeing on the level of new payments to the EU and new trade quotas. Not only do EU officials want to get as much financial aid as they can from wealthy Norway, but they’re also still angry that Norway’s former government imposed controversial tariffs just before leaving office that restrict EU exports of meat and cheese to Norway. Helgesen and the new government had promised to reverse the tariffs when they took office, but their support party in Parliament, the Liberals, broke its campaign promise to do the same so the hotly contested tariffs remain in place.

Disillusion
Norwegians’ ongoing opposition to membership in the EU, which many have blamed on an overriding desire to protect Norwegian markets and sovereignty, comes at a time when many EU members are disillusioned with the union as well. Confidence in the EU has fallen to an historically low level among member nations, according to recent polls, and some researchers believe Sweden and Finland probably would have voted against joining today. The UK is threatening to pull out, but experts think the EU will respond by loosening its regulations in order to keep the union together.

The EU remains a major political force that may become more unified in the face of Russia’s new aggression. It won the Nobel Peace Prize recently for being what pro-EU Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland has called “the greatest peace project” in history. For now, though, there’s little chance if any that Norway will join in the forseeable future. “Let’s be honest,” Jan Erik Grindheim, leader of the pro-EU group Europabevegelsen, told newspaper Dagsavisen. “The issue is quite dead out there.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund