Storm builds around Norway’s EU deal

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Complaints from some of Norway’s biggest labour organizations, combined with no small dose of Norwegian populism, have been fueling dissatisfaction over Norway’s trade deal with the EU. Debate has been fueled by both uncertainty over Brexit and new questions over whether Norway should simply join the EU after all, and thus gain a stronger voice over approval of EU directives that the country has to comply with anyway.

Norway’s relations with the EU are based on the so-called EØS/EEA agreement, which gives Norwegian businesses full access to the EU’s inner market but also demands compliance with most all EU directives. It’s been 25 years since the deal was struck, but debate has been flying over its future. PHOTO: EU Commission

The debate over what’s called the EØS-avtale in Norway and the EEA (European Economic Area) agreement everywhere else, took a new twist just last week. Roar Abrahamsen, leader of the large trade union federation Fellesforbundet’s biggest local chapter, attacked how Norway’s powerful national employers’ organization NHO has used (some say abused) the EØS/EEA deal to advance its business members’ interests.

The attack from Abrahamsen, whose federation represents around 142,000 workers in Norway, came just before NHO, which is decidedly pro-EU, was holding its annual conference in Oslo. It also came just after NHO’s new leader Ole Erik Almlid had claimed he would press for enforcement of EU rules again when they’re more advantageous for Norwegian business than the Norwegian rules traditionally agreed upon locally. Working conditions in Norway have largely emerged over the decades through the so-called “Norwegian model” that’s based on cooperation among NHO, labour organizations and the government. Abrahamsen contended that NHO was undermining the whole process.

Almlid, clearly sensing a threat to the EU trade deal that NHO firmly backs, later backtracked and moderated his stance that implied NHO would continue to appeal to the EU regulatory agency ESA again in cases where Norwegian agreements may not comply with EU rules. Abrahamsen was especially fuming over how NHO had controversially appealed a Norwegian Supreme Court decision to the ESA (EFTA Surveillance Authority), which basically overturned the high court’s decision that Norwegian shipyards must cover the costs of traveling, meals and lodging for foreign workers.

Roar Abrahamsen has stirred things up by wondering aloud whether full membership in the EU would be the best alternative to Norway’s trade deal with the EU. PHOTO: Fellesforbundet

“If there’s no realistic alternatives that address free market access and a job market with good working conditions, then membership in the EU with influence and more predictabity would be preferred when those (like NHO) use the EØS deal like their own toolbox,” wrote Abrahamsen in newspaper Klassekampen. It was a startling statement from a movement that generally has been skeptical of EU membership but went along with the EØS agreement.

“When a strong EØS skeptic in one of the nation’s largest labour organizations points to EU membership as a better alternative (to Norway’s trade agreement with the EU), the debate becomes interesting,” wrote newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN)‘s  commentator Kjetil Wiedswang, a former correspondent in Brussels who has written extensively about the EU and the EØS/EEA deal.

More powerful voices with the labour movement were heard Monday, when another important court case was beginning that also can have consequences for the EØS/EEA agreement. One of Norway’s other large trade union federations, Fagforbundet, claims their lawsuit against private health care provider Aleris is not just aimed at securing rights to pensions, sick pay and overtime by workers at Aleris, but also involves principles tied to Norwegian working conditions and the EØS/EEA agreement.

“The Aleris case is one of the largest and most important workplace conflicts in a Norwegian court for many years,” Mette Nord, leader of Fagforbundet, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Monday. “It’s about how workers have a right to be employees covered by Norway’s labour laws, or whether they in reality should be forced to merely be sole proprietors (selvstendig næringsdrivende, in Norwegian) without rights.”

Mette Nord of the large trade union federaton Fagforbundet is also questioning how Norway’s trade agreement with the EU is being used, or abused. PHOTO: Fagforbundet

Support for EØS challenged
Nord, like Abrahamsen, thinks support for Norway’s trade agreement with the EU will be challenged once again, especially if Norwegian courts set aside Norwegian laws because of Norway’s trade agreement with the EU. “If the EØS/EEA is used to turn down our demand, it will have huge consequences for Norwegian working conditions. It will turn it upside down.”

Aleris, pointing to the agreement with the EU, has been classifying the workers as sole proprietors and simply hiring them in as consultants and not as full-time employees eligible for pensions, sick pay and overtime pay. “This case isn’t about  avoiding either workplace laws or principles about full-time employment,” Erik Sandøy, leader of Aleris Omsorg Norge, wrote in an email to Dagsavisen. “The case is about clarifying regulations regarding the use of sole proprietors as consultants who are not covered by workplace laws … nothing more, nothing less.”

Nord disagrees, claiming that if Aleris uses Norway’s trade deal with the EU, and thus EU workplace laws, “as a means of changing the Norwegian workplace environment, we can’t rule out that opposition to the EØS/EEA agreement will grow.”

25th anniversary with little celebration
There’s already a lot of opposition to the all but forced compliance with EU directives inherent in the EØS/EEA agreement. It marked its 25th anniversary on January 1 but there were few if any public celebrations. Even though it’s condemned as a form of “taxation without representation” since Norway can only lobby for or against EU regulations with which it must comply, there’s little sympathy in Brussels since Norwegian voters have twice turned down membership in the EU, albeit by slim margins.

There also are few alternatives to Norway’s trade deal with the EU, apart from full membership and representation. The deal is still firmly supported by at the last the leaders of both the Conservative and Labour parties, and both business and government officials through the years have claimed the agreement “has served us well.” Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide was prepared to strongly defend it once again at a forum Monday night, just like one of her predecessors, Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, has as well. Støre, like Prime Minister Erna Solberg, has also supported full membership in the EU for years and claimed as recently as last fall that his party “stands by the EØS agreement as the foundation of our relations with Europe.”

“The biggest clear threat to the EØS agreement is the belief that it can be replaced by something better,” Professor Lise Rye at NTNU in Trondheim, told news bureau NTB on the eve of the deal’s 25th anniversary. Politicians in the minority who oppose it, like Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum and the Socialist Left party’s leader Audun Lysbakken, have claimed Norway should renegotiate the deal, especially if the UK ultimately seems to wind up with a better deal after Brexit. Others claim that’s wishful thinking at best, and that if any renegotiation were to begin, Norwegians would come worse out of them.

Rye claims the agreement has “solid” support both within the government, the Parliament and the public in general, despite all the debate swirling around it. Much of the debate began after the EU expanded to include former Soviet-bloc countries, setting off a wave of migration to Norway that no one had foreseen in 1994 when the deal was struck shortly after Norwegian voters turned down full membership. It’s the labour migration, and availability of EU workers willing to work for less than those living permanently in Norway, that’s set off most of the criticism of the agreement.

Brexit chaos stirs debate on both sides
While Brexit encouraged opponents of Norway’s trade with the EU, others claim that all the chaos about Brexit should frighten opponents and make them grateful for a deal that allows Norwegian businesses full access to the EU’s inner market. The agreement has also made it easier for companies in EU member countries to establish themselves, and create jobs, in Norway. Others point out that Norwegian politicians can exercise their right to reserve themselves from implementing some EU regulations, and seek dispensation in special cases. “We actually have more negotiating room with the EU than we use,” researcher Jarle Trondal, who specializes in EØS issues at the University of Oslo, told Dagsavisen in November.

Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who now leads pro-EU efforts in the EU and has been a key player in the Brexit negotiations, was in Oslo last week to attend NHO’s annual conference. He was preaching to the choir, in a sense, since NHO is pro-EU, and newspaper Aftenposten reported that his calls for a “United States of Europe” and EU military forces are even a bit much for them to swallow. He was more than clear in his opinion that Norway should join the EU.

“The best agreement you can have with the EU is membership,” Verhofstadt told Aftenposten. “The next best is to have access to the inner market and Schengen through the European Economic Area  (EØS/EEA).” He equated criticism of Norway’s EØS/EEA agreement to what EU opponents in Great Britain said before Brexit.

He noted that he was a “bit confused” by criticism of Norway’s agreement within the Norwegian labour movement, calling it “absolutely opposite” of what the labour movement in the UK is saying. “They (British labour organizations) still want tight connections to the inner market and the customs union, and view the EU as a security net,” Verhofstadt said. “Perhaps they should set up a telephone conference call with their Norwegian colleagues.”

Given the support for the EU and EØS that still exists within Norwegian labour, and the local trade federation leader’s call for suddenly viewing full membership as an alternative to the EØS agreement, perhaps they’ve already talked. The new legal test over how the agreement affects workers’ rights in Norway will, at any rate, play out in the Oslo County Court for three months, with a verdict due later this year.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund