Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg landed squarely in the middle of the Brexit quarrels going on within her counterpart Theresa May’s own party and in the British Parliament as well. Solberg doesn’t seem to think the British will wind up with an agreement like the one Norway has with the EU.
In addition come the overriding quarrels that the British government is having with the EU itself, as both sides negotiate the terms of Britain’s controversial withdrawal from the EU that was forced through by voters two years ago. Norway has never become a member of the EU, but has an agreement along with fellow non-members Iceland and Liechtenstein that gives the three full access to the EU’s inner market in return for paying substantial fees and abiding by most EU rules and regulations.
Solberg, who met with May at the British prime minister’s famous residence at 10 Downing Street in London on Wednesday, confirmed the British would be welcome to join the European Economic Area pact (called the EØS-avtale) but on various conditions. “We won’t change the (EEA/EØS) agreement to get the British in,” Solberg told newspaper Aftenposten after her meeting with May. “We won’t worsen conditions for Norwegian companies,” or, presumably, those in Iceland and Liechtenstein.
Any EØS solution unlikely
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that Solberg thinks it’s improbable that Britain will settle for an exact copy of Norway’s relation to and agreement with the EU. It contains many of the aspects that led to Brexit in the first place, including the acceptance of EU directives and the equivalent of billions of kroner to be paid over set periods for the privilege of access to the EU market. That’s what anti-EU British voters wanted to get rid of.
“I hope Great Britain will remain part of the inner market, and gladly through the EEA/EØS agreement,” Solberg said, but then Britain would have to accept the same terms of what the British call “the Norway model.” That’s unlikely.
There are advantages and disadvantages to letting Britain join the EEA/EØS pact. “It’s in Norway’s interests that Britain is as closely tied to the inner market as possible,” she told Aftenposten. “Provided they accept laws and regulations from the EU, there can be areas where we can find solutions.”
Awkward for Norway
Others note it could be awkward for Norway, which currently ranks as the largest and dominant player in the agreement that includes Iceland and Liechtenstein. Both May and Solberg hailed the long-term and strong bonds between Norway and the UK, but if Britain were to join the EEA/EØS pact, it would become the dominant partner, posing risks for the three others.
May herself has dismissed joining it, but no clear alternative has yet emerged. Asked whether Solberg had received any better picture of what Britain will ultimately do, she told Aftenposten: “No, but they don’t have one either. There’s no clarification tied to what they want and what they can get in a compromise.” That “contributes to uncertainty,” Solberg noted, for Norway and other countries.
“First they’ll have to find their own way,” Solberg said, through political processes. Then Norway will likely need to hammer out a bilateral trade agreement with Britain itself. Solberg’s government is following developments in the UK as closely as possible, as it tries to get ready for whatever may come.
Solberg noted that the British need “a foundation at home before they can negotiate outside it. It’s clear that the British didn’t have a plan … for what would happen if folks voted in favour of leaving the EU.” That’s left everyone affected by Brexit anxious and uncertain.
New alliances forming
Aftenposten reported that meanwhile, countries in Northern Europe are forming new alliances as the power balance within the EU shifts. Britain’s departure from the EU will be sorely felt among countries like Ireland, the Netherlands, the Nordic and Baltic members. With Britain gone, they’ll be on their own or will need to rely on one another.
Solberg all but welcomes a new form of the Hanseatic League that dominated trade centuries ago. “Hansa sounds good for someone from Bergen (like herself),” Solberg told Aftenposten during her visit to Brussels earlier this week. “It won’t be unnatural to create tighter cooperation among these countries, but it’s also important that the EU isn’t split up or viewed as having factions.” Her Conservative Party has always wanted Norway to join the EU, but Norwegian voters have voted against that twice. It’s been 24 years since the last referendum. Given the uncertainty and tension created by an unpredictable president in the US, and kinship with Europe, the EU membership question may rise again, although polls show a majority still opposed.