Kathrine Kleveland, a farmer and graphic designer from Holmestrand and member of the small farmer-friendly Center Party’s board, was elected over the weekend to be the new leader of the lobby group Nei til EU (“No” to the EU). Since there’s no real effort to get EU membership back on the political agenda, Kleveland claimed she’ll take up the fight against Norway’s market access agreement with the EU instead.
News bureau NTB reported that Kleveland will mount an effort to end Norway’s membership in the European Economic Area, also known as the EØS. Norway’s agreement with the EU regarding EØS membership gives Norway access to the huge EU market, allowing the country to sell, for example, its fish and oil to EU countries in return for payments of economic aid to the EU.
The agreement also means that Norway and the two other members of the EEA, Iceland and Liechtenstein, must follow most EU regulations. That’s where the Center Party and other anti-EU lobbyists object. “We think the EØS agreement pokes holes in our democracy with all its new rules and directives,” Kleveland told NTB. “Norway accepts all these new rules. Since the agreement went into effect (after Norway voted against joining the EU itself), we have passed 10,000 rules and directives.”
Kleveland thus vows to work hard to get Norway out of the EEA, “so that we can become an independent nation with its own trade agreements.” She will also follow up the Nei til EU group’s decision to work towards mounting a new referendum on the EØS issue. “We have to build up awareness and get folks involved in this issue,” she told NTB.
Her election came just as Nei til EU was celebrating the 20th anniversary of Norway’s last EU referendum in which Norwegians opted against EU membership by a vote of 52-48 percent. While anti-EU sentiment now is much higher, some “no” voters in 1994 have since changed their minds, including influential political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim of newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).
Alstadheim wrote in a column on Saturday that he once sat on the board of Nei til EU, because he was a committed environmentalist and feared the EU would prevent Norway from carrying out forceful environmental policies. Twenty years later, it’s the EU that is the world’s most forceful proponent of an international climate agreement, he wrote, certainly not the oil nation Norway.
He also recalled how Nei til EU officials claimed that the “rich man’s club EU” concentrated only on Western Europe at the expense of the emerging east. At that time the EU had 12 member nations. Today it has 28 and the Polish premier Donald Tusk was just elected as the EU’s leader. “If there’s any ‘rich man’s club’ in Europe today,” Alstadheim argued, it’s the non-EU nations Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
Nor has the EU become a “United States of Europe” like the former anti-EU queen Anne Enger Lahnstein warned back in 1994. It remains very much a union of national states, Alstadheim noted, that only takes in new members when they meet democratic requirements.
Kleveland nonetheless paints the EU as a threat to democracy and welfare. She claims it’s not naive to think Norway can give up its EØS agreement with the EU, claiming that the EU has other direct trade agreements with countries that are not members. She claims Norway can be “an interesting market” for EU countries, even though it’s very small and consistently tries to block cheaper agricultural imports at the same time it wants full market access for its own exports.
The group Kleveland now heads has around 25,000 members nationwide.