Solberg squashes new EU debate

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Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservative Party still wishes Norway would join the EU, but she’s not keen on launching a new debate on EU membership any time soon. That disappoints her own party’s youth group and, likely, one of her government coalition partners.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg has long supported membership in the EU, but still doesn’t think the time is right to launch a new EU debate in Norway. PHOTO: Den norske EU-delegasjonen i Brussel

Newspaper Aftenposten reported over the weekend that debate has already been flying among members of the Conservatives’ program committee, as to whether the party should go more on the offensive with its long-standing support for EU membership. The Conservatives’ youth group (Ung Høyre) has also proposed that the party should actively work towards joining the EU during the next parliamentary session from 2021 -2025.

“I warmly welcome the intiative,” Linda Hofstad Helleland, the leader of the Conservatives’ program committee and one of Solberg’s government ministers, told Aftenposten last fall. Helleland confirmed that EU membership was being discussed by the committee and several others also wanted to promote the issue.

Solberg herself, however, is now sending different signals, not least after being challenged by several anti-EU opponents in Parliament. They  include the leader of the protectionist Center Party that caters to a farming constituency and voters living outside Norway’s major cities.

‘Not a good idea’ to launch new debate
“No, it’s not a good idea to start an EU debate at a time when opposition is still so massive in Norwegian society,” Solberg said during a traditional meeting with Norwegian media before the summer holidays began this week. “We have more than enough to do just making sure no one makes a mess of the EØS (European Economic Area/EEA) agreement.” It gives Norway full access to the EU’s inner market in return for hefty financial contributions and complying with most EU rules and directives, and is often under attack.

Solberg stressed that her party “will always argue in favour of why we should have been a member, but putting the issue on the agenda now, when only around 25 percent want to be members, is a waste of resources.” Around 60 percent oppose membership and the rest are undecided, according to recent surveys. EU advocates have noted that the opposition is much less than it was just a few years ago, when it exceeded 70 percent.

Solberg told Aftenposten that she could understand that  the party’s youth group is impatient, however. There’s also been more momentum in favour of EU membership lately, especially after Solberg’s government coalition partner, the Liberal Party, changed its position on the issue and voted to support joining the EU.

‘Broad support’ for EU cooperation
A new survey of Norwegians’ views on foreign policy also has detected “a slight Europeanist trend” with broad support for more “cooperation with European partners” including Germany, France and the UK. Researchers at the Oslo-based foreign policy institute NUPI also found that Norwegians firmly support multilateral cooperation and don’t want Britain’s “troubled exit” from the EU to hurt it.

“But we are still firmly decided on not joining the European Union,” NUPI researcher Øyvind Svendsen stated in his analysis of the survey, “and quite content with our current agreements with the EU.”

Solberg otherwise summed up a demanding late winter and spring dealing with the Corona crisis, and once again sent her condolences to the families of the 249 Norwegians who had died from Covid-19 as of Friday. Solberg’s government has received generally good reviews for how it has handled the crisis and gained control over the virus relatively early. The economy is also beginning to recover as businesses open up again.

Solberg said her government would now be concentrating on preserving and creating more jobs, moving forward with a more climate-friendly restructuring of the Norwegian economy, cutting carbon emissions, providing for a more inclusive workforce and boosting preparedness for new crises and emergencies.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund