This week’s Brexit drama is once again being followed anxiously in Norway, which struggled with its own EU referendum results in 1994. Now Great Britain is Norway’s single biggest trading partner, and Norwegian seafood exporters in particular don’t want, for example, to see their fish rot in any long lines at customs if the UK exits the EU with no trade pacts in place.
“There’s reason for unease, but we’re doing what we can,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide told reporters as the Brexit drama hit a new climax in the British Parliament. That evolved into more uncertainty as calls went out for a new election in the UK that in turn would force more delays.
“Great Britain is our most important market in Europe,” fretted Inger Marie Sperre, chief executive of the fish exporter Brødrene Sperre AS in Ellingsøy outside Ålesund. “Brexit creates uncertainty for exports, imports, currency exchange and British purchasing power.” Jobs are at stake at her company just like they’ll be in the UK as well.
No one knows what will happen the day Britain finally leaves the EU, especially if no EU trade pact is in place that would also apply to Norway because of its membership in the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS). Sperre and many others fear chaos at the borders, in the British harbors and for heavy transport over the English Channel.
“The immediate danger will of course be border chaos where traffic and goods today move freely,” Sperre told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “An entirely new border control system will have to be put in place and that can lead to long waits for trucks in long lines. Our worst-case scenario involves containers packed with fresh Norwegian fish that will rot.” Then come fears that Britain will become more protectionist, favouring its own fishing industry over foreign firms.
Norway already has several bilateral agreements in place with the current UK government in the event Britain crashes out of the EU without no EU trade agreements, making a so-called “hard Brexit.” As NRK reported on its nightly national newscast Dagsrevyen Tuesday night, Norwegian and British travelers will still be able to freely enter and leave each country, expat Norwegians and British citizens will continue to be able to live and work in each other’s country, transport agreements will be honoured and trade is supposed to continue along the lines of the current EEA/EØS agreement.
“That’s a very important agreement that regulates the most important areas of Norwegian business,” Foreign Minister Søreide told NRK. Airline and truck transport is meant to continue as now.
“We have done what we can, but the uncertainty is absoutely real and there’s a lot that lies outside our control,” Søreide said. “We’re trying to keep everyone informed as best we can … but Norwegian authorities have, of course, no control over the situation at the British border. That will depend on British capacity.”
Lessons from Norway’s EU referendum in 1994
Oslo newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) editorialized on Wednesday that Britain is now in a “constitutional crisis” created by the conflict between the direct democracy reflected in the Brexit referendum of 2016 and the elected representatives of people who voted in the referendum. DN raised comparisons to the referendum held in Norway in 1994 when a majority of Norwegians turned down membership in the EU.
Norway thus narrowly avoided a crisis of its own, since both its small, anti-EU Center and Socialist Left parties had indicated they wouldn’t necessarily respect the will of the people. If a slimmer majority had voted in favour of joining the EU, both Center and the Socialist Left could have blocked Norway’s membership in the EU.
That leaves two lessons from the crisis Norway avoided and the UK is caught in, according to DN:
*** Any referendum should be preceded by thorough and enlightening debate on the consequences of various referendum results. DN noted that new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had earlier rejected the possibility of a “hard Brexit,” believing the EU would accept Britain’s demands. That didn’t happen and now Johnson faces critics who insist he has no mandate to leave the EU without an agreement in hand.
*** Rules for how elected representatives should handle referendum results must be made crystal clear before the people vote. Otherwise things can go very wrong indeed.
For the Norwegian government’s own status of Brexit issues, click here (external link to articles in English about the impact of Brexit on Norway, complied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).