Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of Norway’s trade deal with the European Union (EU), called the EØS avtalen, but there was no big celebration. Instead, a new poll shows that nearly half the Norwegian population wants to put the deal up for a vote, and possibly alter or scrap it.
Newspaper Dagsavisen reported on Tuesday that the poll, conducted by research bureau Sentio for the anti-EU organization Nei til EU in Norway, showed that 47 percent of Norwegians want to have their say on the EU trade deal. Only 20 percent did not want to put the EØS-avtalen up for a vote, while 33 percent were unsure.
Interest in actually joining the EU remains very low in Norway, and the Conservative Party is currently the only political party that wants Norway to join the EU. Most of the main parties agree that Norway’s trade deal with the EU is very important, since it provides access to the EU’s inner market, but it’s always been controversial. That’s because it calls for Norway to pay large amounts for that access and to comply with EU regulations, even though Norway has no voice at the EU itself.
Commentator Kjetil Wiedswang wrote in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday that only now can Norway possibly find new options to the “pay, obey and no say” deal it currently has with the EU. Great Britain’s negotiations with the EU over its pending exit from the union may provide Norway with new alternatives, not least if Great Britain makes demands or requests that Norway didn’t dare to make back in 1992.
At that time it was a young Jonas Gahr Støre, working in then-Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s office and speaking fluent French that impressed then-EU Commission President Jacques Delors, who was part of the Norwegian team landing the EØS (EEA, European Economic Area) deal. Now Støre hopes to become prime minister himsel and he still defends Norway’s EU deal. It has provided Norwegian exporters with direct access to the EU market and that’s been a gold mine for products like oil, gas and seafood producers. A major evaluation of the EØS/EEA Pact in 2012 indicated it’s been an economic success.
The Conservatives’ government partner, the Progress Party, wants, however, to renegotiate parts of it, with the issue due to be discussed at the party’s annual national meeting this weekend. That’s causing problems for the government minister in charge of EU issues, Frank Bakke-Jensen. He calls it “hopeless and irresponsible” to demand changes in the trade pact now.
“The agreement guarantees Norwegian companies, workers and students equal rights as other Europeans in a fellowship of 500 million people,” Bakke-Jensen told Dagsavisen. “It is not in our plans to hold a referendum on the EØS-avtalen.” He noted, moreover, that acceptance of the trade deal hammered out in 1992 was approved under democratic rules and with 75 percent support in Parliament.
The Brexit process, however, can yield a clearer picture of what Norway might have achieved if it had chosen another form of ties to the EU. “After a quarter-century with EØS, it will be interesting to get some answers,” Wiedswang wrote.