NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s foreign ministry chose “Europe Day” this past week to launch the Norwegian government’s new strategy for cooperation with the European Union (EU). It contains many of the same goals and lofty promises for good relations as before, but Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide also revealed that it’s aimed at putting Norway first, and no translation into English was even available when it was formally presented on May 9th.
“Our European policy won’t just be active, it will also be effective,” Søreide declared in the government’s press release (in Norwegian only) on Wednesday and in a commentary published in newspaper Aftenposten,.
“That means (the policy) will have clear goals and be formed such that we secure the greatest possible breakthroughs for Norwegian interests and priorities,” Eriksen said.
It was no coincidence that she released the strategy on the same day that former French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman held the speech, on May 9, 1950, that’s viewed as the launch of European integration after the devastation of World War II. He proposed uniting markets for the German and French coal and steel industries. By tying the two former enemies’ economies together, it was reckoned, there’d be better chances for lasting peace on the European continent.
Søreide, who hails from the Conservative Party that has long wanted Norway to actually join the EU, wrote in Aftenposten that she saw good reason for celebrating “Europe Day” in Norway even though Norwegians have twice voted down EU membership. She didn’t attend the EU Delegation to Norway’s large and festive “Europe Day” reception herself Wednesday afternoon, sending a state secretary instead to speak and mingle with ambassadors and others, but she did claim that “we are part of the European peace project” while her delegate told the EU’s guests gathered at the Oslo Concert House that “Europe Day is our day, too.”
The government’s new strategy for cooperation with the EU contains two main messages. The first is that Norway’s cooperation is aimed at realizing the Norwegian government’s “visions” of “a secure Europe, a free Europe, an economically strong Europe and a Europe whose countries share responsibility for shared challenges.”
Søreide said, also on national radio Wednesday and at a breakfast meeting of the Conservatives’ think tank Civita, that she’s “convinced European cooperation will become even more important for us in the years to come. We need more legs to stand on regarding security policy. We need that to develop more legs to stand on economically. We need that in order to handle global challenges like migration and climate change. And we fundamentally need the EU as an allied force in defense of the multilateral system that is under pressure on various fronts.”
The second message in Norway’s strategy, however, is that Norway wants its policies towards both the EU and individual EU member countries to best serve Norwegian interests and visions for Europe. “Even though Norway is not a member of the EU,” Søreide stated, “we will be active participants rather than passive observers,” in trying to influence EU policy.
Norway has been contributing financially and heavily to the EU since it first struck the so-called EØS-avtale (EEA agreement) that gives Norway full access to the EU’s inner market. Norway has also agreed to abide by most all EU rules and regulations, even though it has no vote and can’t sit around the EU’s negotiating tables in Brussels. Rarely if ever has Norway reserved itself from EU regulations or programs, even in the face of strong public opposition, such as that which erupted over Norway joining the new EU energy union. EU critics in Norway complain often and loudly that Norway undermines its own sovereignty through the EØS/EEA agreement. Both Søreide’s Conservatives and their arch rivals at the Labour Party, however, agree that without the agreement, Norway wouldn’t be able to sell its oil, salmon and other products of its export-oriented economy to Europe, its most important market.
Some of the diplomats attending the EU’s reception on Wednesday have detected not only Søreide’s ongoing desire for cooperation and influence in the EU but also directly with its largest nations Germany, France and, not least, the UK, which is in the process of leaving the EU. While NATO remains Norway’s greatest source of defense, Søreide claimed that Norway’s “security, freedom and welfare depends on Europe as a whole developing in a positive direction. Norway will take on its share of responsibility to contribute to that through its commitments to the EEA, Schengen and other agreements we have with the EU.”
Keen to preserve democracy in Europe
Norway also shares the EU’s concerns over alarming signs of moves away from the EU’s democratic principles. The governments of some EU member nations have cracked down on their opposition, a free press, international organizations and on the independence of the courts and other important institutions otherwise meant to provide “checks and balances” on their power. Countries like Hungary, Poland and other former Soviet bloc nations that have received huge amounts of financial aid over the past 25 years from the EU (and Norway) seem to be biting the hands that have fed them, refusing, for example, to accept their fair share of refugees even when they produced thousands of refugees themselves while under Soviet control. Increasingly authoritarian regimes are challenging and even threatening much of what the EU holds dear.
Søreide declared that the NOK 2.8 billion (roughly EUR 304 million) in funding it has committed to send to the EU between 2014 and 2021 is viewed as “Norway’s most important financial tool in European policy.” Norway, which has recently been through tough negotiations with Poland over how its fuding can be allocated, will also use its funding to help realize its vision of a “secure, free, economically strong and responsible Europe.”
The Norwegian government claims it will be following up its stated strategy through “concrete, annual programs” that address priority areas. With democracy being challenged in some areas of Europe, Norway will “assume its responsibility,” Søreide stated, for furthering the EU’s democratic goals “for our common good.”
Guests at the Europe Day reception politely applauded Søreide’s state secretary’s summary of the government’s new strategy government, which he said would soon be made available in English. There was no specific mention by any of the speakers of the US president’s controversial announcement the night before about withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal that Germany, France and Great Britain (with Norway actively involved) were a big part of putting together. Asked why, one top diplomat responded “let’s not spoil the party.”