NEWS ANALYSIS: Thursday marked the 25th anniversary of Norway’s second historic EU referendum, in which a modest but decisive majority turned down membership in the European Union once again. Now a new generation of voters seems keen to put EU membership back on the political agenda, and have a say themselves through a new referendum.
The Conservative Party’s youth organization Unge Høyre, for example, voted to put forth a demand that the party must, during the next Parliamentary term from 2021-2015, actively work for Norwegian membership in the EU. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that efforts to join the EU also must take place either through Parliamentary action or a new referendum.
The youth group also wants the Conservative Party to in turn demand cooperation on efforts to join the EU from other prospective government coalition partners after the 2021 election. “It’s been 25 years since the last referendum and my generation hasn’t been allowed to take part in deciding on the issue,” Daniel Skjevik-Aasberg. acting leader of Unge Høyre, told Aftenposten on Thursday.
The Conservatives’ youth organization points to how the EU has become a leader in attempts to reverse climate change and makes many decisions that affect Norway without Norway having a seat or voice at the EU’s negotiating table. It’s important for Norway to finally be fully represented at the EU, Skjevik-Aasberg argues, while at the same time serving as a counterweight against EU countries that recently have been moving in “an illiberal direction.”
“The EU has a long tradition of taking national interests into consideration,” he added, suggesting that Norway may win concessions for its efforts to protect its agriculture industry, for example. Norway’s large seafood industry, he notes, already has a broad cooperation with the EU.
Green lights from the Greens
The young Conservatives’ new demands for a new debate on EU membership are the latest in a string of events that can revive it. Perhaps more significant is the resurgent Greens party’s view on the issue, since their voter support is rapidly growing in line with climate concerns. The Greens have stated that they want to “work actively together with Europe to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.” They also want “to contribute towards more debate on common European issues” in Norway and “cooperate closely with the EU on carrying out climate policy.”
The Greens party (MDG), which may win the ability to tip the balance of government power in 2021, has also declared that “”if Norway is to join the EU, it must occur through a referendum.” The Greens don’t rule out EU membership like some small Nowegian parties do, even noting in its party program that the EU “has contributed positively to peace and cooperation in Europe after World War II and been the forerunner of climate policy in the world.”
Can’t rely on multilateralism any longer
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) editorialized in favour of EU membership this week, arguing that “it would have been better for Norway to be part of the EU” when it’s had to face issues om everything from regulation of digital giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, to the debate over whether to let Huawei of China develop Norway’s 5G network. As the Trump Administration in the US pulls out of multilateral cooperation, Norway can find itself feeling more alone if it stays outside the EU.
There’s also the nagging issue of how Norway must follow EU policy as part of its trade and policy agreement with the EU (the so-called EØS/EEA pact), but can’t be part of forming that policy as a non-member. Norway has secured critical access to the EU’s inner market, but in return it’s faced often reluctant compliance with EU directives and found itself guilty of misinterpretation of EØS rules, as in the recent NAV scandal, when Norwegian officials jailed those who traveled abroad while receiving welfare benefits. Under EU rules, that’s entirely legal as long as the travel is within the EU and European Economic Area.
Thawing a frozen debate
The EU debate has nonetheless been frozen ever since 52.2 percent of voters turned down membership in 1994, while 47.8 percent favoured it. Support for joining the EU was slightly higher than it had been at the prior referendum in 1972, when 46.5 percent favoured membership, but politicial leaders who’d lobbied themselves for EU membership were so spooked by the referendum results that they haven’t dared to bring up the issue again.
Commentator Harald Stanghelle wrote in Aftenposten on Thursday that the Labour- and the Conservative parties have been “resigned to silence,” not least since both have had to work in coalitions with other parties in order to win government power. That’s led to tacit agreements with anti-EU parties like Center and the Socialist Left on Labour’s side and, more recently, the Progress Party and Christian Democrats on the Conservatives’ side, that literally swept the EU debate under the rug.
Stanghelle wrote that both the Labour and Conservative parties, both of which supported EU membership in 1994, have since “given up” on the issue and that no new referendum on the EU is likely for another 25 years.
Membership may be the best alternative
Martin Sandbu, economics commentator in the Financial Times who has conducted research and taught at Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, disagrees. He wrote in Aftenposten last weekend that a new EU debate can suddenly arise at any moment, if it hasn’t begun already. Even though recent public opinion polls still indicate that more than 60 percent of Norwegians oppose EU membership, the actual votes on the issue have never been so high and can change in line with how Norway has changed since 1994.
Sandbu thinks the current debate over the EØS/EEA agreement will strengthen, perhaps to the point that a majority will consider the best alternative to be actual membership and voting rights in the EU. He points to three areas where Norway’s current ties to the EU (through the EØS agreement) have created problems: through the free flow of workers and residents, the energy directive Acer, and the NAV sandal. All undermine Norwegian policy and point up the democratic deficiency in having to follow rules that Norway isn’t part of forming.
More than anything, Sandbu also points to how “an entire generation” has grown up since the last EU referendum without being able to vote on the issue. “We should expect that they also want to say something, especially given the enormous changes in world politics and the European project” since 1994, or “how internationalized Norway has become.”
That internationalization may pose the biggest threat to the anti-EU Center Party, even as its support grows in recent public opinion polls. The more it argues against the EØS pact, however, the more likely actual membership in the EU may emerge as the best alternative. Former Center Party leader Anne Enger who also led the anti-EU forces to victory in 1994 has realized that as well, telling news bureau NTB this week that “the no-side” needs to prepare for battle again. There are folks who want a new debate, she admitted, “so I told the no-folks they must be ready.” The “yes-folks” are more likely to be ready, too.