UPDATED: Speculation was running high this week over a third round of Brexit talks that got underway amidst concerns of a reported deadlock. Norwegian officials are following the process of Britain’s pending exit from the EU as closely as possible, not least because of what it will mean for Norway’s own relations with both the EU and Britain. Norway’s upcoming parliamentary election also presents some further complications and uncertainty.
“Norway is being taken seriously both as a close ally and an important partner,” claimed Norwegian EU Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen after he met in London this week with politicians from both the ruling Conservatives and the Labour Party. They included Baroness Joyce Anelay from the ministry responsible for the Brexit process, and Labour MP Hilary Benn.
Bakke-Jensen told news bureau NTB that the meetings between Norway and Britain are being conducted “in a very good tone,” in contrast to how the Brexit talks themselves are setting off alarms over their lack of progress. The Guardian, for example, reported this week that the Brexit talks are unlikely to move ahead as planned (external link) in October because the British government is seen as “weak, divided and unwilling to accept the full consequences of the decision to leave the EU,” according to European ambassadors.
Norway’s minister in charge of EU issues put a more positive spin on things, with Bakke-Jensen clearly wanting Norway to maintain the best possible ties with both the EU and Britain. He told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday that the debate with Britain has clearly changed in recent months, though, after the June election in the UK left British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party much weaker. Now her “hard exit” from the EU looks more likely to be replaced by a softer version that will retain the UK’s access to the EU’s inner market.
EEA/EØS ‘dynamics’ at risk
Reports leaked to British media earlier this summer suggested Britain ultimately may need to opt for a solution to the Brexit problem through some form of transition period. That’s since been reinforced by both some Conservative politicans and Britain’s Labour Party, raising more speculation that one option may be at least temporary membership in the European Economic Association (EEA, known as EØS in Norway), which Norway now dominates. Its other two members are Iceland and Liechtenstein.
Membership in the EEA/EØS gives Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein full access to the EU market in return for hefty amounts of financial aid to the EU (of which Norway pays the most) and acceptance of EU regulations and directives on competition and the free exchange of goods, services, labour and capital.
Britain voted in a hotly contested referendum to leave the EU, however, because it no longer wants to follow the EU’s rules or pay the equivalent of EU membership fees. Its prospective membership in the EEA/EU can thus cause problems for Norway, warns Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, and not only because Norway would lose its position as the proverbial big fish in a small pond.
“Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein have used the EEA to promote integration in Europe,” Sverdrup told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “But if the British use it to disintegrate and pull itself away from the EU, it will destroy all the dynamics.”
Sverdrup thinks the British are now trying to find a balance in relations with the EU like Norway also did after Norwegians twice rejected membership in the EU. The challenge, he said, is that “the British don’t know what they want. They want Britain to leave the EU, but not at a high cost. They want to be part of many things and have to solve the impossible problem of how to be both in and out of the EU at the same time.” The NUPI researcher also noted that while Norway and the two other EEA/EØS members are “quite similar,” the British are set them selves apart.” They may not be as willing to accept EU rules on the rights of workers or immigration, for example.
Norway’s national employers’ union NHO is now sounding some some alarms. “It’s not in our interests to be involuntarily mixed into Britain’s conflict-filled relations with the EU,” Tore Myhre, international director of NHO, told Aftenposten. He agrees with Sverdrup that Britain’s interests within the EEA can be very different from those of Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, causing problems since all EEA members must agree on whether to accept EU directives. Conflicts can also arise since EEA’s current members are in it for the long term, while Britain may not share long-term perspectives. Myhre thinks the EEA/EØS can serve as a model for Britain, but that the British should have their own agreement with the EU that won’t affect the three EEA/EØS members.
Norway keen to stress its position
Other researchers, including Professor Richard G Whitman at the University of Kent, are not as concerned as Sverdrup. Whitman conceded there have been major conflicts between Great Britain and the EU, but stressed that they mostly involved issues of sovereignty and control, not disagreement over social dumping, for example.
The Norwegian EU minister Bakke-Jensen noted this week that Norway, despite being “taken seriously,” also finds it “extremely important to remind” all involved that “we are part of the EU’s inner market.” He told Aftenposten that Norway “is open to all proposals and we have no plans to shoot down any ideas the British come up with,” but he also suggested Britain would be best served with its own “EEA/EØS-type model” that “doesn’t need to affect our agreement with the EU.”
He said he made Norway’s priorities clear while in London regarding Norway’s own future agreement with Britain, especially on issues involving citizens’ rights. Around 20,000 Norwegians currently live in Great Britain, and the Norwegian government wants to make sure their rights to study and work there will be preserved. Nearly 20 percent of all Norwegian exports also currently go to Great Britain: “There are relevant things we’re negotiating with the British, like gas, hydroelectric power and technology,” Bakke-Jensen told NTB.
Complications and election uncertainty
Bakke-Jensen, like so many others, remains worried that the Brexit process is extremely complicated. Concerns are rising all over Europe that Britain and the EU won’t be able to be meet the two-year deadline set for the negotiations, making either an extension or a temporary solution necessary.
“For us, this is all about getting the best agreements possible afterwards,” Bakke-Jensen said. “We have to work hard for that and follow this tightly all the time.” Meetings are also ongoing between Norwegian and British bureaucrats, with a goal of “creating a network for dialogue” in the months ahead.
That’s important because political leadership of Norway’s foreign ministry, to which Bakke-Jensen of the Conservative Party is attached, may change after the September 11 election. A Labour-led coalition that includes the anti-EU Center Party and Socialist Left party (SV), is keen take over, and then Norway’s positions may change. Both Center and the Socialist Left are highly critical of Norway’s EEA/EØS agreement with the EU and see Brexit as a chance to renegotiate it. Cener Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum wants to set up a commission to study alternatives to the EEA/EØS agreement, even though earlier studies and a political majority in Parliament have concluded that it has served Norway well despite Norway, as a non-member of the EU, having no say in how EU rules are formed. On Thursday morning, Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre indicated a government led by him may open up to examining alternatives.
Further complications with Britain as a potential EEA/EØS member would also likely arise over agriculture, which the Center Party wants to protect from EU competition but which Britain does not. Norway’s immigration-skeptical Progress Party, which has been part of the current Conservatives-led coalition government, also wants to renegotiate the EEA/EØS agreement on issues involving border control, but both Bakke-Jensen and Foreign Minister Børge Brende rejected their junior partner’s demands. Brende has strongly advised against any attempt at modifying Norway’s trade agreement with the EU, and that won’t happen as long as the Conservatives are in control.