Another one of Norway’s political parties has come out in favour of joining the European Union (EU), this time one of the members of the government coalition. It’s the latest sign that opposition to the EU is starting to wane in Norway, 25 years after voters turned down EU membership for the second time.
The Conservative Party that leads Norway’s government coalition has pretty much been alone in favouring EU membership as stated policy. Now it’s been joined by its junior partner in the coalition, the Liberal Party (Venstre).
The Liberals’ central board voted at a digital national party meeting over the weekend that the party will “say yes” to EU membership, which in turn would need to be decided through a new referendum on the issue. The Liberals’ elected officials must respect a referendum’s result, the board declared.
“It was a good debate, with respect for various viewpoints,” Iselin Nybø, who currently serves as the government’s trade minister and leads the Liberals’ program committee, told news bureau NTB on Sunday. “I’m glad we’ve taken the step that the program committee pointed to.”
‘New tones’ regarding an old issue
The Liberals had earlier opposed EU membership, so “these are new tones” coming from the party, wrote political commentator Kjell Werner in newpaper Dagsavisen. Werner noted that there was a pro-EU majority in all of the party’s largest county chapters, and that the leader of the Liberals’ important youth organization Unge Venstre, Sondre Hansmark, has promoted EU membership for several years.
“Norway can’t be left to sit out in the corridor (at the EU),” Hansmark told Dagsavisen. Hansmark believes that pressing issues such as climate change, migration and personal privacy in the Internet age can only be solved through committed international cooperation. That also applies, he believes, to the problem of multinational companies that avoid taxation where they do business.
Hansmark has also noted how Norway is in many ways fully integrated into the EU already, through its membership in the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS) that obligates Norway to follow most EU directives and practice in order to obtain access to the EU market. “The only thing we lack is the right to vote” on EU issues, Hansmark said, because of Norway’s non-membership status.
‘The left side should embrace the EU’
The Liberals’ decision to support EU membership follows a surprise declaration last week from Hulda Holtvedt, the national spokesperson for the Greens Party’s youth organization. She’s known for not only setting the tone for the Greens but also for being part of Norway’s political left wing, where EU membership has long been flatly rejected.
The 21-year-old Holtvedt told newspaper Aftenposten last week that she thinks EU objections are downright wrong and out of date. “The climate crisis crosses all borders and can only be solved through international cooperation,” Holtvedt told Aftenposten. “The left side of Norwegian politics should embrace the EU.”
She added that the EU today is “the greatest force in climate negotiations,” and pulls Norway along. “If we’re serious about reaching the 2-degree goal, the left side of politics and the environmental organizations must set aside old positions and slogans. We must be willing to give up a bit of sovereignty in order to achieve committed climate policies. For Norway, that means joining the EU.”
That all but turns the EU issue “on its head,” according to Werner, and there’s more momentum as well. A public opinion poll last fall still registered a solid majority against EU membership (59.9 percent), but that’s much smaller than the more than 70 percent support of a few years ago. “The people’s ‘no’ isn’t as overwhelming as before,” wrote newspaper Klassekampen at the time. Nearly 30 percent favoured EU membership (up from 20 percent) and the number of those unsure (12.5 percent) was fairly stable.
Editorial support as well
Dagsavisen, which has traditional ties to the Labour Party, editorialized in favour of EU membership last November, claiming that the need for cooperation around Europe is “much, much greater than it was in 1994,” when Norway last voted down EU membership by a relatively slim majority of just over 50 percent. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has long editorialized in favour of joining the EU, on the grounds Norway is “paying a high price” for remaining outside it. Other equate the large amounts of kroner Norway must pay to the EEA every year, for its EU market access, as the equivalent of taxation without representation.
The weekend declaration favouring EU membership by the Liberal Party prompted Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, leader of the anti-EU and protectionist Center Party, to demand that the Conservatives’ Prime Minister Erna Solberg declare whether she’s gearing up for a new EU campaign. He was clearly shaken by the Liberals’ vote, and change of heart.
“Solberg said during the election campaign in 2009 that it was a major goal to get Norway into the EU,” Vedum said. “In 2005 she talked about introducing the euro into Norway. She should say that’s it’s out of the question to start a membership process now.” He described an EU “with big problems,” and that Norway must retain its own currency.
After years of EU membership being suppressed as a political issue, Vedum’s defensiveness indicates just how nervous the “no-side” may be over recent developments. Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre has long supported EU membership personally, but had to go along with suppression for the sake of party unity. Others claim a new EU debate is coming, and may once again become part of next year’s parliamentary election campaign.