Norway’s Labour Party, which has long favoured membership in the European Union (EU), has struck a more neutral tone in its new party program rolled out this week. Labour’s leader, Jonas Gahr Støre, claims it’s only a sign of adapting to the times.
The party, though, has been reaching out to centrist parties in the hopes of forming a new Labour-led government coalition after the September parliamentary election. All of Labour’s most likely partners, including the Center Party, the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Left, have long opposed EU membership.
They also either oppose or want to change Norway’s agreement that allows it market access to the EU, called the EØS/EEA (European Economic Area) agreement. Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Tuesday that Labour has now highlighted “challenges” that the EØS pact poses for the labour market in Norway as well in its new proposed platform, which will be up for debate at its annual meeting this spring.
It all indicates that Labour seems to be backing away from some of its traditional stands in order to appease potential government partners and appeal to more voters who long have been skeptical of both the EU and the EØS agreement. It was struck in 1994 after Norwegians voted for the second time against joining the EU, albeit by a narrow margin.
‘In line with our times’
Støre, a former foreign minister who has personally been an EU backer for years, insisted he’s not really changing his position, nor is his party. Rather, he told newspaper Aftenposten, “the formulation of our position regarding cooperation with Europe is in line with our times.”
“We are fans of strong political cooperation in Europe and have (before both elections on the EU issue, in 1972 and 1994) recommended a ‘yes’ vote on EU membership,” Støre continued. “But EU membership is not an issue at present.”
All of Norway’s political parties have been reluctant to even bring up EU membership, not least after public opinion polls have showed an overwhelming majority of Norwegians against it, much larger than in 1994. “Therefore we state in the (party) program that any membership proposal would have to be brought up at a new national party meeting,” Støre said.
Anniken Huitfeldt, Labour’s spokesperson on foreign policy issues, also called the new wording in the program as merely a reflection of “today’s situation.”
The party’s program itself states that although Labour has supported EU membership in the past, “there is room amongst us for various views,” and that, as Støre said, Labour would have to call a new national meeting if the issue reemerges on the political agenda. That’s clearly change from previous party programs when Labour claimed it “had not changed” its view that “membership in the EU would be an advantage for Norway.”
No longer raving about the EØS, either
Regarding the EØS, which has been attacked by the protectionist-oriented Center Party for years, Labour’s new party program notes that while it has been “a good platform and secured our wide economic interests in cooperation with the EU for more than 20 years,” it “also has contributed to several challenges for the labour market, which demand strong political measures to fend off.”
That’s a significant change from the wording in Labour’s previous party program, in which the EØS was described as “creating security for equal treatment, both for companies and people who seek work or residence in our neighbouring European countries.” Earlier programs have noted that the EØS contributes to Norway being “strongly integrated in the European cooperation. Labour believes this is important to take care of Norway’s interests both economic and political.”
The changes may not only appease anti-EØS forces like those in the Center Party but also in several Labour union confederations, not least Norway’s largest, LO, which is a traditional source of support for Labour and wants to protect Norwegian jobs. LO has also been raising questions about the EØS, which is expected to be a topic of heated debate at the upcoming LO Congress this spring.