Norway sends hundreds of millions of kroner every year to the European Union (EU), through funding that buys Norwegian exporters market access to the EU but is also supposed to aid the poorest EU countries. A report on state broadcaster NRK showing how some funds have been used to finance birdboxes and a “Viking show” in Romania has thus sparked questions and criticism.
After the EU expansion in 2003, Norway and two other non-member countries (Iceland and Liechtenstein) became obliged to pay NOK 1.7 billion (USD 217 million at current exchange rates) to the EU every year in return for market access through the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). The money from Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein was meant to contribute to “social equalization” in new EU countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic nations. Norway contributes fully 97 percent of the amount paid through EFTA and Poland currently receives the largest share.
Romania, among the poorest of the EU countries, receives the second-largest share, around NOK 2.6 billion over the five-year period of Norway’s existing EU cooperation agreement (called the EØS avtale) that’s now up for renegotiation. NRK took a look at how the money has been spent in Romania and found that NOK 700,000, for example, was earmarked for a project to hang up 1,400 birdboxes around the city of Cluj. The group behind the birdbox project also used funding allocated to it to buy a car, lease office space and host a wine and cheese party in the city’s botanical garden, all aimed at boosting public interest in birds and biological diversity.
“That’s NOK 500 per birdbox,” commented Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, leader of Norway’s rural-oriented Center Party that has fought hard to keep Norway out of the EU. Vedum’s party is also known for being anti-EU in general and frequently questions Norway’s cooperation with the EU. Vedum’s predecessor, Liv Signe Navarsete, even stayed away from the ceremony in Oslo when the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize a few years ago.
Vedum believes the birdbox project appears “very costly,” especially in a low-cost country like Romania, and he questions the project’s contribution to combating poverty. Questions were also flying on Wednesday over NRK’s revelations of funding for a course in which Norwegians from Trondheim have taught Romanians how to put on outdoor performances from the Viking- and Middle Ages, while in Poland, money was used for new interpretations of Shakespeare, robotic art and puppet theater. NOK 560,000 was earmarked for the history of the various forms of sandals used by farmers in Romania.
‘Too many strange projects’
Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s government minister in charge of EU issues, said the projects highlighted by NRK on its nightly national newscast Dagsrevyen on Tuesday represent a tiny percentage of the overall funding. He also stressed that it’s the countries themselves that decide how their funding allocations should be used. The vast majority of the money does indeed go towards fighting poverty and corruption, he claimed.
As negotiations continue over a new five-year funding agreement, Helgesen told NRK that his team is emphasizing efforts “to combat youth unemployment, climate measures, and more cooperation in the legal sector,” and less on culture and health issues.
Vedum remains uneasy and thinks there are “too many strange EU cooperation projects.” He fears that millions of kroner are being wasted on projects that do not contribute to social and economic development. “This is a signal there is too much money and too few good projects,” Vedum told NRK.
Helgesen countered that Norway can only set priorities, while the receiving countries allocate the resources. “We should be careful about criticizing the countries receiving money, when we could easily have initiated such projects here in Norway also,” he said. He also thinks the projects themselves help develop organizations in the various EU countries that were under communist control just over two decades ago.