Brexit uncertainty keeps on growing

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Norwegian students are the latest group to be warned about the consequences of Brexit.  While businesses and British expats in Norway have been worrying for months, a government minister is flat out advising Norwegian students against beginning any foreign exchange- or other study programs in the UK this fall.

Iselin Nybø, government minister from the Liberal Party who’s in charge of higher education, is now warning Norwegian students against beginning any foreign exchange programs in Great Britain this autumn, because of the uncertainty around Brexit. PHOTO: Kunnskapsdepartementet

“There’s so much uncertainty because of Brexit,” Iselin Nybø, Norway’s government minister in charge of higher education, told state broadcaster NRK over the weekend.  “If you’re a student and evaluate traveling out of Norway to study this fall, I recommend you look at other countries than Great Britain.”

Those already involved in degree programs are covered under other agreements, Nybø noted, but those planning to spend just a year studying in the UK should think twice. The greatest amount of uncertainty revolves around the EU foreign studies program known as Erasmus.

The UK and especially England are among the most attractive lands for Norwegian students, with around 4,200 currently studying in the UK at present. “We’re hoping we can make sure Norwegian students can both obtain degrees and take part in foreign exchange programs,” Nybø said, but right now there are many questions regarding the validity of existing agreements regarding everything from school credits to fees and health care coverage. There are no guarantees, she noted, that students will be able to finish their studies or take exams.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg (left) and British Priime Minister Theresa May have tried hard to downplay the consequences of Brexit on relations between Norway and the UK. “We’re leaving the EU, not Europe,” May said last year during one of their meetings, but question remain over trade, travel and residence issues. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Trude Måseide

Both Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and British Prime Minister Theresa May have claimed that Norwegian residents in the UK and British residents in Norway will have the same rights as they do now. Those assurances were made, however, when it was expected that Britain would leave the EU with formal agreements regarding everything from trade to residence. No such agreements are in place, however, with the exit date still set for March 29.

Brexit uncertainty is also raising considerable concern among Norwegian businesses that work closely with the UK on the imports and exports of goods and services. Norway’s foreign and trade ministers met with business leaders last week but had to admit they’re as stumped as everyone else over what might happen on March 30. They’ve made all kinds of “Plans B and C,” but challenges lie ahead.

“There’s only nine weeks until Great Britain is supposed to leave the EU and there’s still great uncertainty over how that will happen,” Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide said at the meeting. “We’re trying to prepare for what will happen with an agreement (between the UK and EU) and without one.” The greatest fears revolve around the prospect of a “hard Brexit,” under which the UK leaves the EU with no agreements in place at all. Since Norway’s trade with the UK has long hinged on Norway’s own inner market access deal with the EU, Norway risks being left without any trade agreement with one of its largest and most important trading partners. Only WTO rules will apply, and they’re now considered to be in the low division.

An anti-Brexit sticker placed on a garbage can in Britian, spotted last weekend at London’s Heathrow airport. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Seafood exporters are the most nervous, if shipments of perishable fish, for example, are left waiting for clearance into the UK. Companies like food producer Orkla, which also has production plants in the UK, fear chaotic border crossings and delays the most.

Søreide said a string of bilateral agreements, including transition deals, between Great Britain and Norway are ready to click in if a “hard Brexit” becomes reality. Questions remain, however, over how quickly they can be recognized and take effect, even though it’s in both countries’ interests that it’s swift.

Great Britain is Norway’s biggest single trade partner, with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reporting that Norway exports NOK 212 billion worth of goods and services and imports NOK 38 billion worth a year. Oil and gas stand for most of the trade and shouldn’t be affected, but purchase of parts and services for the oil service industry can be hit hard, as can the seafood sales.

Norway’s Parliament may be called upon to grant the government extraordinary powers to act in the case of airline traffic, seafood exports, studies and even mobile telephone use. Both countries will want the least amount of adverse impact on trade and citizens.

British Prime Minister May, meanwhile, has been ordered back to Brussels to try once again to negotiate a so-called “divorce agreement” with the EU, but it won’t be easy. Another option is for the March 29 exit date to be extended.

Pro-EU sentiment rising
Norway’s own trade deal with the EU, known as the EEA/EØS agreement that gives Norway full access to the EU’s inner markets, is widely viewed as more important than ever. Pro-EU sentiment has also been rising in Norway, which voted twice against the joining the EU.

“Both Norway and Great Britain need the EU much more than the EU needs them,” editorialized newspaper Aftenposten last month. “That will always characterize relations with the EU, either you’re in or you’re out. That’s become painfully clear for the British lately.”

Fully 68 percent of the Norwegian population supports Norway’s agreement with the EU. It remains a challenge, however, to drum up enthusiasm for the constant stream of EU rules and regulations to which Norway must adhere (through the EEA/EØS agreement) even though Norway hasn’t been part of forming them.

Some thus detect a rise in support for outright EU membership in Norway, even though most politicians are reluctant at best to even propose mounting another referendum. The EU and Norway are nonentheless more than often in agreement on international political issues, see the need for a European counterweight to the US’ Trump Administration and oppose the US’ sanctions against Iran. The EU’s recent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPS), aimed at protecting data privacy, has also been hailed.

MP Abid Raja of the Liberal Party is now among those favouring full EU membership for Norway, not least because of the Brexit uncertainty. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

In December, Abid Raja, a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party that’s part of the government coalition, even proposed that his party finally come out in favour of EU membership. The Conservatives have long favoured it, but its other government partners including the Progress Party and Christian Democrats oppose EU membership. Raja thinks it’s time to fully support the EU.

“We stand firmly behind the EEA/EØS agreement,” Raja told DN. “If a discussion comes up, we must learn from Brexit and say that the EU serves the world, Europe and Norway.”

He thinks the Liberals, a small party that’s been shrinking further in recent years, would benefit from taking a firmer stand on important international issues. “Right now there’s still no (EU membership) discussion … but I think we should become a full member. Seen from a democratic point of view, it’s not healthy that Norway has an EEA/EØS agreement in which we don’t have direct influence on the EU, but still have to implement EU directives.”

“The smart, up-and-going (Norwegian) citizen will see that this gives us a democratic deficiency,” Raja told DN. “Full EU membership will serve Norway better.” It’s his latest challenge to Liberals’ leader Trine Skei Grande, who personally opposes EU membership and declined comment on Raja’s proposal.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund