NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegian politicians were mostly regretting British voters’ decision to leave the European Union (EU) but reaction was muted and cautious, not least because the voting result raises more questions than answers. Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her minister in charge of EU matters, Elisabeth Aspaker, were only certain that major changes loom, also for Norway.
“This is major change happening around us,” Solberg said on national radio radio Friday morning. “It will create political challenges for Europe from now on.”
Solberg, head of Norway’s Conservative Party, has long favoured EU membership for Norway and made no secret of the fact she wanted Great Britain to remain in the EU. “I hadn’t wanted us to land in this situation,” Solberg told state broadcaster NRK, “but it’s the British people who should decide and they have decided.”
She said the British referendum’s result sent a “strong signal” to European leaders that they haven’t been good enough at finding solutions to the challenges already facing the EU and to the concerns of people living in Europe. She thinks the EU and Great Britain, however, will find solutions to the new problems the British referendum has created. “The EU is a good political compromise machine,” Solberg said.
So much uncertainty
She seemed not at all certain about what the Brexit (British exit) vote will mean for Norway, which has rejected EU membership twice but must adhere to EU regulations and pay hundreds of millions of euros to the EU every year to retain access to its inner market. Without Great Britain, that market will be much smaller, while Norway also will likely need to negotiate a separate deal with Britain itself.
“The question remains over what our relation to Great Britain will be,” said Solberg. “If Great Britain agrees with the EU on its own access, Norway can be affected.” Solberg has also expressed concerns that the vote will add to rising nationalism in Europe.
Solberg is set to travel to Brussels herself on Tuesday for meetings with the leaders of other conservative parties in Europe, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a champion of the EU. Some answers may arise, and Solberg said she at least sees the meeting as an opportunity for “informal talks” with other European leaders about what will happen now. The uncertainty and British turmoil rose Friday morning with the announcement that British Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, will resign in October.
Other Norwegian politicans seemed taken aback by the Brexit vote, and few had any concrete predictions for what lies ahead either. Aspaker, charged with overseeing Norway’s relations with the EU, said there was reason for unease and that discussions would need to start soon between the EU and Britain. “It will take time before this (Brexit) takes effect,” Aspaker said on NRK’s popular political talk show Politisk kvarter Friday morning. She added that she and other government ministers would be most involved with trying to protect Norway’s interests.
Finance Minister Siv Jensen said at a press conference on Friday, as shares in Norwegian companies were being pounded, that she expected more financial turbulence in the days to come.
Will take time for concrete consequences to emerge
Jonas Gahr Støre, leader of the Labour Party and a former foreign minister who also has wanted to join the EU, said it could take as long as “two to five years” before the full transition of Britain leaving the EU and striking its own market access deal is completed. He otherwise was as vague as Solberg, commenting only that Friday was “a day that will change Europe and Great Britain” and that the Brexit vote showed not only a “deep split” within Europe but also within the UK, since both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted in favour of remaining in the EU, while England and Wales voted against. Leaders in Scotland were already talking about renewing independence efforts of their own, and leaders in Northern Ireland were talking about reuniting with Ireland, which remains an EU member.
There were those cheering the Brexit vote in Norway. Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, leader of Norway’s small anti-EU Center Party, said he thought the Brexit vote was “a good result” and that it can open up new opportunities for Norway to renegotiate its own deal with the EU. The Center Party has long fought against both the EU and Norway’s “EØS” agreement with the EU, keen to resist any rules that will force Norwegian farmers to give up their subsidies and tariffs that protect them from competition with European farm products. They have political power in Norway and what many European farmers consider a very good deal, that they don’t want to lose.
Interestingly, a large majority of British farmers wanted to remain in the EU, to preserve market access and EU subsidy levels, fearing they’d get much less support from their own government, especially if the British economy is battered by the Brexit vote. With the value of the British pound falling to record lows and stock markets crashing Friday morning on news of the Brexit vote, the British farmers had reason indeed to fear a British withdrawal from the EU.