NEWS ANALYSIS: Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg has reignited debate over whether Norway should join the EU, nearly 30 years after the last referendum on EU membership. A slim majority of Norwegians voted ‘no’ back in 1994 and the latest poll still suggests a similar result today. Solberg has, however, put the issue back on the agenda after it was officially suppressed for decades.
“Norway’s place in Europe is at the table (at the EU), together with our closest allies, together with other democracies,” Solberg declared at her Conservative Party’s recent annual meeting. That instantly set off a week of new EU debate heading into the Easter holidays. Solberg, who’s also made it clear she wants to win back the prime minister’s post in the next national election, stressed that it’s important for Norway to have a hand on the wheel “that decides where Europe and Norway are going.”
Solberg and her party have always been in favour of EU membership, yet she was among those suppressing debate since the last EU referendum in 1994. The referendum marked the third time Norway had turned down membership, after declining to seek it in the earlier European Community in the early 1960s and later through a referendum in 1972. Political parties positive towards joining the EU (including Labour in 1994) thus gave up their efforts. It was viewed as a waste of time, and debate fell mostly silent for the next 28 years.
Interest briefly revived during Solberg’s second term as prime minister, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee even awarded a Peace Prize to the EU in 2012. The membership issue also resurfaced when Russia invaded Ukraine in February of last year, when anti-EU sentiment also declined. Norway and much of the rest of the world were mightily impressed by the EU’s swift and firm condemnation of the invasion, and by its strong support for Ukraine. EU countries that often seemed to be endlessly quarreling suddenly united in full force and have maintained remarkable solidarity.
“Let there be no doubt about where Norway belongs in this serious situation (of war in Europe, launched by one of Norway’s own neighbours in the north),” Solberg told her party faithful in late March. “It’s among the world’s democratic countries that stand shoulder to shoulder against dictatorship.”
Public support in Norway for the EU jumped right after the invasion, and had turned more positive even beforehand. Most Norwegians were already well aware that without help from the EU and Sweden, which said “yes” to EU membership in 1994 when Norway said “no,” Norway wouldn’t have received Corona vaccine as quickly as it did in late 2020. Norway has also found itself facing tougher trade negotiations by being outside the EU, over everything from seafood quotas with a post-Brexit UK to customs duty on car batteries. Now Norway also needs the EU’s help in negotiations with the US over the effects of its Inflation Reduction Act, and how it will both subsidize and favour American business.
“What does Norway do in such situations?” Solberg asked rhetorically in her opening speech at the Conservatives’ annual meeting. “We knock on all the EU doors we can and ask if we can join in anyway.” Norway remains subject to the good graces of the EU, though, and can’t participate directly in how EU policy is formed.
Many Norwegians have thus been waking up to the shortcomings of being outside the EU. Few dispute that the EU has become even more important for Norway after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, despite Norway’s membership in NATO. As many have noted, it’s not NATO but the EU that has pushed through sanctions against Russia and coordinated both humanitarian and military support.
The numbers of those supporting EU membership quickly rose and by June of last year, a poll by research firm Sentio for newspapers Klassekampen and Nationen showed that 35.3 percent of those questioned said they’d vote “yes” to joining if a referendum were held, 48.8 percent said they’d vote “no” and 16 percent were undecided. The “yes” vote was the highest in 12 years and other polls indicated that as many as 40 percent were positive, according to Endre Tvinnereim, an assistant professor in politics and management at the University of Bergen. He wrote a commentary in newspaper Aftenposten last September claiming that Norwegians’ views on both the EU and NATO were “clearly in motion.”
EU support has since declined, to 31 percent in February, according to yet another poll by Opinion for political websites Altinget and ABC Nyheter. The “no-side” rose to 51 percent and to 52 percent in a Norstat poll for NRK just last week. The “yes” vote fell to 27 percent, but fully 21 percent are now “uncertain.”
That’s why a new EU debate is necessary, claim the Conservatives even though Solberg helself was reluctant to commit to one as late as last year. She’s since changed her mind, in line with others who think the EU has now become even more important for Norway after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She was persuaded by members of the Conservatives’ youth organization and her own “reawakening” as chronicled in her new book Veien videre (The way forward). She told Aftenposten that the pandemic showed how vulnerable Norway can be on its own: “I think many in the EU thought it was politically and morally correct to help us (with Covid vaccines), but we can’t always expect that we’ll be included in everything when we’re outside the EU.” Challenges from a more protectionist US also loom: “It’s within the framework of the EU that we can find solutions to these questions. ”
She also noted, just before Finland formally joined NATO, that there will be “very few (European) countries that are members of NATO and not members of the EU at the same time.” Sweden is also expected to join NATO as soon as Turkey and Hungary decide to cooperate with all other NATO members who already are welcoming Norway’s next-door neighbour.
Now debate is taking off, with NRK devoting a full episode of its popular Debatten program last week to the EU membership issue. Solberg’s former defense- and foreign minister Ine Eriksen Soreide was most in favour, repeatedly stressing how “the world has changed” after Russia attacked its own neighbour and alliances are more important that ever. Current Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, meanwhile, still refuses to say whether she’s in favour of joining the EU, since the issue remains suppressed in its government platform with the firmly anti-EU Center Party. Labour wanted to join back in 1994 and most assume its current Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre still wants to, but he also remains mum for the sake of government unity.
Støre’s finance minister, Center leader Trygve Vedum Slagsvold, continues to staunchly oppose EU membership: “By not being an EU member, we can front Norwegian interests independently of whether they’re in line with the EU or not,” Vedum wrote in Aftenposten on Friday. “EU countries often have to speak with one voice, while we have an independent foreign policy.” Vedum also reverts to his party’s longtime arguments that “our geography and settlement patterns are not reflected in policies the EU wants.” He supports regulations, subsidies and “district politics” aimed at keeping remote areas populated at the expense of urban areas and foreign competition.
More and more are coming out of the woodwork to support an EU bid, however, including the Greens Party, which has been impressed by the EU’s climate policy. Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen of Labour has come out in favour of joining as has former Socialist Left Party (SV) leader Erik Solheim, who was firmly against joining but agrees that “Europe is changing.” Former Liberals leader Trine Schei Grande has also changed her position, noting that Russia’s war on Ukraine has made her “see the light” and agree with the rest of her party, which has called on Støre to launch a new debate. “I don’t think the prime minister (Støre) was especially satisfied when EU leaders gathered around a table in Brussels to decide on sanctions against Russia, while he gathered with Norwegian journalists and waited for the result,” Liberals leder Guri Melby said last fall. The Liberals want a full, impartial state study of the membership issue.
The far-left Reds Party and SV, and the right-wing Progress Party join the Center Party in opposing EU membership, but SV welcomes a debate. SV thinks opposition is still strong enough to win another “no” vote, but questions remain about how the younger generation would vote. Hardly any Norwegians under age 50 have ever had a chance to follow an EU debate and make up their own minds. Many also see how troubled the UK has become after the Brexit vote that pulled it out of the EU. Studying the effects of Norway’s trade agreement with the EU isn’t enough, argue commentators including Kjell Werner. The entire EU issue, he thinks, needs a more “well-informed debate.”
Other commentators in some of Norway’s biggest newspapers are mostly in favour of joining the EU or at least back a serious debate over membership. “50 years outside the EU are enough,” wrote Aftenposten’s political editor, Kjetil B Alstadheim, last fall. He notes how the changes within the EC/EU since 1972 and 1994 are “enormous.” He scoffs at anti-EU politicians who claim membership would undermine Norwegian sovereignty or self-government: “The years have shown what the EU means for democracy in Europe.” He thinks the war on Ukraine has also shown that only the EU, not individual countries within Europe, “has the will and the power to take on a large geopolitical role.” And Norway should have its own say in that role as a full-fledged member.
“With war in Europe, Norway needs more than ever to be part of a bigger fellowship, of the EU,” echoes newspaper VG‘s Hanne Skartveit. Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, thinks Russia’s war on Ukraine has left Norway even more on the “outside.”
As pressure grows on the government, its Center Party ministers and leaders are so far continuing to block an internal EU debate. They’re maintaining their position that EU membership would force Norway to “give up national control … in critical areas of its preparedness, security and economic development.” Center fears, for example, that Spanish- and other EU fishing boats would be able to fish just as much in Norwegian waters as Norwegians, and that Norway in general is better off being “independent outside the EU.” Center and its farming constituency have always felt threatened by the EU, fearing membership would force Norway to ease its own protectionism and reduce high tariffs on agricultural imports that help keep food prices in Norway high.
It’s the new generation of voters, however, who may exert the most pressure to reopen the EU debate, hold another referendum and, possibly, join the EU. “Trump, the pandemic, the war: Since I was born the world has changed drastically,” wrote Amalie Moursund-Härenstam of Green Youth in Aftenposten last month. “The world in 1994 is not like the world in 2023. The world needs more cooperation, democracy needs cooperation and Norway needs cooperation. We need the EU more than ever and therefore we must re-evaluate the decision we took in 1994.”
Anders Riseng Tjeldflaat, of the Young Liberals’ Oslo chapter, agrees. “No one younger than 45 has been allowed to vote on whether Norway should take part in the European cooperation,” he also wrote in Aftenposten. “It’s time that the young are allowed to state their opinion on Norway’s place in Europe.”