Alternatives sought for EU agreement

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Norway’s 25-year-old trade and policy pact with the EU survived yet another round of attacks from labour unions this week. The so-called EØS/EEA agreement remains subject, however, to a search for alternatives to it, through a compromise that came only after Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre was roundly scolded over his support for the deal.

Members of Fellesforbundet voting at the national meeting made it clear they’re not happy with all aspects of Norway’s agreement with the EU. PHOTO: Fellesforbundet

Known as the EØS-avtale in Nowegian, it secures Norwegian exporters access to the EU’s inner market and participation in many of the EU’s cooperative programs. It means that the free movement of goods, services, workers, residents and capital over the borders of EU member nations also applies to Norway, even though Norway is not a member of the EU itself.

In return, Norway pays hundreds of millions of kroner to the EU every year, mostly to help finance development projects in the EU’s less-affluent countries, many of which were formerly part of the Soviet Union and still struggle with democracy and market economics. Norway is also expected to go along with all EU directives, and it’s those allowing residents to work in all EU countries that cause the most complaints among Norwegian workers.

Many members of Norway’s largest and most powerful trade union federation in the private sector, Fellesforbundet, made it abundantly clear over the past several days that they’re fed up with the EØS deal. They bitterly complained at their national meeting in Oslo that they can’t compete for jobs against the residents of EU countries, especially those from Eastern Europe who are willing to work temporarily in Norway for much lower wages than those demanded by Norwegian workers. Norwegian workers feel especially threatened by employment agencies and companies that only hire in workers, often from the EU, on short-term contracts, and by cabotage that has led most recently to foreign tour bus- and trucking companies literally driving Norwegian bus and truck drivers out of the market.

They offered many examples of what they view as social dumping and threats to the wages and working conditions that labour organizations have secured in high-cost Norway over the years. Tour bus drivers said they rarely see fellow Norwegian drivers on the road anymore, because most all the buses are from elsewhere in Europe. Two of three workers at the Kværner Stord shipyard are now hired in on a temporary basis, often from abroad, claimed its union leader. Newspaper Klassekampen reported that Kværner Verdal in Trøndelag has had periods with five times as many temporary workers than full-time employees. At Rosenberg Verft in Stavanger, the union claimed there currently are around 300 full-time employees and 600 workers on short-term contracts. Havyard in Lerivik has 180 full-time employees out of a total of around 700.

Jørn Eggum, leader of Norway’s largest trade union federation for private sector workers, led long debates this week over the EØS/EEA agreement. PHOTO: Fellesforbundet

Employers often justify the use of temporary workers as part of the highs and lows of the order flow, but Fellesforbundet’s leader Jørn Eggum calls it “a frightening development.” He worries that permanent employment in Norwegian industry is no longer the rule. He blames the EØS agreement and “poor political handling” of it.

Repeated calls were made during five days of heated debate at Fellesforbundet’s meeting to scrap the EØS agreement, and hammer out a new trade deal with the EU instead that wouldn’t leave Norway beholden to accepting virtually all EU policies. Norway has a right to “reserve itself” against EU directives, but no Norwegian government has yet dared to exercise it, for fear of how the EU might react.

Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, meanwhile, was subjected to nearly three hours of scolding, scorn and even ridicule at the meeting because of his ongoing support for the EØS deal. “I warn against putting the (EØS) agreement into play, I fear the price will be too high,” Støre said in his speech to the large gathering. “Don’t use energy on this internal disagreement.” After claiming that the Labour Party defends the EØS agreement as a “good deal that should be taken care of in an uneasy world,” he promised to listen to complaints, and got an earfull.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) and other media reported how Støre faced a string of accusations that he and the party weren’t listening to Labour’s grass roots. They complained that Labour, which performed poorly once again in local elections last month, is no longer a party of labourers, but rather made up “consultants and advisers and academics” who don’t understand workers any longer. “Jonas, you have to start cleaning up in your corps of advisers,” claimed Stig Aimar Hansen of Sarpsborg. “Your advisers are here in this room.”

Støre was also accused of offering a “thin” defense of the EØS deal, and even of arrogance. One union member accused Støre and his Labour colleagues of being “more loyal towards Brussels than the pope is to the Vatican.”

Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre (left) and Fellesforbundet‘s leader Jørn Eggum in a happier moment before facing angry members and tough debate. PHOTO: Fellesforbundet

Støre, who mentioned later that he had “to tolerate a lot” from Fellesforbundet, responded by saying that the biggest priority is for union members to have a job to go to. He also risks losing more Labour Party voters to the Center- and Socialist Left parties which have long criticized the EØS agreement.

In the end, Fellesforbundet didn’t specifically vote to either scrap or keep the agreement. Instead, they voted 300-218 to demand a public study of alternatives to it, a process unlikely to move forward with the current conservative government in power. Støre himself opposes such study, only a better look at how much “negotiating room” Norway has within the existing agreement. He could console himself that there was no demand to scrap it that would have put more pressure on him and his party. As DN pointed out, there was actually a larger margin against scrapping the deal than at Fellesforbundet’s meeting four years ago.

Both Støre and Eggum were relieved by the outcome, and the storm will likely subside for now. Complaints remain, however, that the EØS deal has left Norway open to foreigners working on poorer terms and has weakened national control over Norwegian labour regulations.

While Eggum told newspaper Aftenposten he was “glad” the organization could “leave the issue as dead,” it may well rise up again in line with the next national elections in 2021. Eggum stated himself that the long debates and vote in favour seeking alternatives to the EØS deal “sends a clear signal that things are absolutely not good in some portions of Norwegian worklife. “I have always been clear that this can be blamed on poor political work here at home and not entirely on the EØS,” Eggum said. “That’s what we want to examine.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund