British Prime Minister Theresa May clearly has a staggering amount of things to deal with this week, from presenting her government’s state budget to negotiating the ongoing Brexit drama, but there she was, braving the rain in Oslo on Tuesday and making an historic appearance in the Norwegian Parliament. She’d accepted an invitation to attend the opening of the 70th session of the Nordic Council, and stuck to it.
Her goal was clear, as May noted herself. Britain may be leaving the European Union, but not Europe itself. It’s perhaps more important than ever for her government to cement ties with other countries and councils in Europe, and the Nordic Council seemed to rank high on her list.
She even started off with a brave, and comprehensible, attempt at greeting the Nordic Council members and prime ministers in Norwegian. The ornate room where members of the Norwegian Parliament usually meet was packed with people who were glad she was there and to hear what she had to say.
“I can assure you that the close cooperation with the Nordic region will continue after Brexit,” May said from the podium. She stressed ongoing commitment to the UN’s Climate Agreement struck in Paris, noting that “we have chosen a different road” than the US. Far from “turning our backs” on either the world, the EU or the Nordics, May indicated the UK will be working harder than ever to strengthen regional and bilateral relationships after the UK leaves the EU.
While many questions remain over the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU, trade will need to continue. May dismissed talk of a new Brexit referendum that’s arisen because of all the uncertainty and discontent within the UK. “The British people have given their vote, and they voted to leave the EU,” she said in a response to a question from the floor.
New bilateral trade agreements with Britain on its own will be needed, and that’s been a matter of great interest and priority in Norway, which never joined the EU in the first place. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) noted on Wednesday how a member of May’s own Conservative Party, Nick Boles, has proposed that Britain become a temporary member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which currently consists of Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. Boles further proposes that Britain join the European Economic Agreement (EEA/EØS) that serves as the EU’s trade pact with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein but not Switzerland. The British could be part of the EEA for three years, for example, while continuing to hammer out their own trade deal with the EU.
The EEA involves payment of high fees for the privilege of gaining full market access to the EU’s inner market, though, while its members also need to comply with most all EU rules and regulations. Norway has borne most of the financial burden of the deal, simply because its economy is so much bigger than Iceland’s or Liechtenstein’s. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg “will probably allow Theresa May in as a temporary EEA big sister,” wrote DN commentator Kjetil Wiedswang on Wednesday. “What can happen later is another matter.”
May, meanwhile, wants Britain to have a specific, exclusive deal of its own with the EU, the terms of which are anxiously awaited by Norway. If the British strike a better deal than the EEA, pressure will grow on the Norwegian government to negotiate better terms as well.
Solberg and May had their own bilateral meeting in Oslo on Tuesday, with all the obligatory promises of ongoing cooperation, but not much can be resolved in the trade area yet. It was the first time May had been in Norway as prime minister, and the two goverment leaders also had such issues on their agenda as security and defense challenges, education for girls, modern slavery and saving the world’s seas from plastics and other pollution, in addition to trade policy.
“Norway and Great Britian have a close and good relationship,” Solberg said afterwards, adding that the two countries work closely together in several bilateral and international areas, and share the same values.
“We want to continue the best possible cooperation with Great Britain in the future,” Solberg said. “It’s extremely important for us to establish a new bilateral framework for trade after Great Britain goes out of the EU.”
Solberg also mingled with and hosted her fellow Nordic prime ministers and members of parliaments, not least at a Northern Future Forum reception at the Norwegian government’s guest house just behind the Royal Palace. Both Solberg and May, along with Denmark’s prime minister, donned white coats and took part in the forum’s visit to the Oslo Cancer Cluster for a session on health technology and how it can serve an ageing population.
It was a busy day. Solberg most of all wants a political and economic future with her Nordic neighbours and Great Britain that will yield copies of all the agreements the EU strikes with Great Britain. Michael Tetzschner, a Member of Parliament in Norway and veteran member of Solberg’s Conservative Party who’d invited May to Oslo, stressed that Great Britain “is one of the most important partners for the Nordic countries, not least in terms of trade, economy and security. A good ongoing cooperation is in the interests of everyone.”