Norway finally lands trade deal with UK

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Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservatives-led government reportedly has finally struck a new post-Brexit trade deal with the Conservatives-led UK, but only after reportedly trying to secure support for it from the rival Labour Party. Norway’s two “steering parties” could thereby overrule protests from one of Solberg’s small government partners that wanted more protection for Norwegian farmers.

Norway’s seafood industry is second only to oil, and can keep coastal communities alive. That’s why Norway wants to be able to sell more fish to the UK, in return for allowing the UK to sell more of its farm products in Norway. Norway’s farming lobby objects and wants protection from all agricultural imports, leading to tough negotiations within Norway’s own government coalition, in addition to those with the British. PHOTO: Norwegian Seafood Council/Rune Stoltz Bertinussen

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was first to report a breakthrough in long and difficult talks between Norway and Great Britain. The two countries have been trying to hammer out a bilateral trade deal between the two of them ever since the UK withdrew from the EU. Trade with Britain had earlier been regulated through Norway’s trade deal with the EU.

Since Norway and the UK are close allies and have been trading with one another for more than a thousand years, few thought negotiations would get so difficult. Norway’s powerful and loud farm lobby, however, objected mightily to proposals that Norway could sell more of its fish to the UK in return for the British being able to sell more cheese and other agricultural products to Norway.

That defies Norwegian import limits on most anything that competes with Norwegian farmers’ products. Farmers already enjoy lots of tariff protection and would rather force Norwegian consumers to buy their version of Cheddar cheese, for example, than allowing in more authentic English Cheddar at more reasonable prices.

Two of Norway’s three conservative government coalition parties favoured being able to sell more seafood in return for allowing more market access to British farm products. The small Christian Democrats, however, refused to go along. They have long relied on voters from rural areas, have political control of Norway’s Agriculture Ministry and just landed in a conflict with the farm lobby for not offering more state subsidy. They didn’t want to offend the farmers once again.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg has been keen to ensure more access to the British market for Norwegian seafood, one of Norway’s biggest industries. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Sunniva Ihle Steinstad

“Negotiations have been demanding,” admitted Solberg in early May, referring to the squabbles within her own government in addition to the trade talks themselves with her government’s British counterparts. “Norway has little import protection except for that within agriculture, and negotiations are difficult in relation to that.”

At stake, however are exports worth at least NOK 40 billion in 2019 and more now. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) was among the first to report about the Norwegian government’s internal disagreement, which had to be settled before there could be an agreement with the UK. As the months dragged on, concerns rose, as news leaked that the Christian Democrats did not want to allow more market access to Great Britain.

DN reported Thursday afternoon that Solberg finally asked Labour, which is generally open to trade agreements, for help. DN reported on drama behind closed doors as Solberg’s government worked hard to get a trade deal proposal to Parliament by the end of this week at the latest. If Labour would vote for it, Solberg would be assured a majority, get the deal in place before the summer holidays and safeguard thousands of jobs, at the possible expense of some in the farm sector.

Labour didn’t go along immediately and refused to strike any deals with the government, according to DN.  Labour was willing, however, to have Solberg bring her proposed deal to Parliament for an open debate.

NRK reported that the deal, with or without Labour’s committed support, is due to be presented on Friday. It wasn’t clear whether the Christian Democrats have finally gone along with Solberg’s and Trade Minister Iselin Nybø’s proposals or whether they’ll dissent. Christian Democrats leader Kjell Ingolf Ropstad, also a government minister, has acknowledged that a new trade deal with the UK is important, if difficult.

“We’re negotiating a deal with a big country that wants good access to our market,” Ropstad told NRK, “but I do think there’s a lot of agreement within the government that this is a very important agreement for Norway, and we’ll work hard to get it into place.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund