The Norwegian foreign ministry has denied local press reports that it rejected a British request to set up a formal joint taskforce aimed at preparing a post-Brexit free trade deal between the two countries.
The business daily Dagens Næringsliv earlier reported that Britain’s international trade secretary, Liam Fox, had asked Norway’s trade and industry minster, Monica Mæland, to form a bilateral trade working group at a meeting on 14 September.
The paper said the request was passed to the Norwegian foreign ministry, which is coordinating Norway’s Brexit response, where it was turned down as likely to jeopardise Norway’s European Economic Area (EEA) agreement and “inappropriate” while Britain was still a full member of the EU.
But a ministry spokeswoman said Mæland had confirmed in a letter to Fox that Norway was willing to “initiate a dialogue” in an attempt to “minimise any potential future disruption to the bilateral trade relationship”. The letter said Norway was “flexible concerning the format of the dialogue, within the framework of our respective obligations”.
No 10 said it was not true that Liam Fox had asked for a joint working group on trade with Norway: “That did not happen. Liam Fox has had dialogue with Norway. It was part of an ongoing dialogue between the Department for International Trade and individual states. It was a friendly conversation as opposed to any specific requests.”
The format – and formality – of preliminary bilateral trade talks is a highly sensitive issue. Fox is eager to begin work on negotiating new trade agreements with non-EU member states, but the UK is legally barred from signing any trade agreements while it remains an EU member.
Last month the Australian trade minister was forced to row back on earlier enthusiastic noises about the setting up of a bilateral working group to “scope out the parameters of a future ambitious and comprehensive Australia-UK free trade agreement”.
Steven Ciobo said any formal work on a bilateral post-Brexit deal between the two countries would take second place to Australia’s trade talks with the EU, and anyway could not begin until Britain had fully exited from the bloc.
Norway is not a member of the EU but has access to the single market though its membership of the EEA, which groups EU member states plus three of the four members of the European Free Trade Association (Efta) – Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
Norway has said it could block an eventual UK bid for Efta membership. The European affairs minister, Elisabeth Vik Aspaker, said in August it was “not certain it would be a good idea to let a big country into this organisation. It would shift the balance, which is not necessarily in Norway’s interests.”
The “Norwegian model” had been held up by some pro-Brexit campaigners as a possible way for the UK to access the EU single market via the EEA, although the government’s insistence on controlling immigration and regaining parliamentary and judicial sovereignty after Brexit may rule that out: EEA membership requires the four EU freedoms, including the free movement of people.
Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, the leader of Norway’s Centre party, accused the Norwegian government of dragging its feet in response to the Brexit vote, telling Dagens Næringsliv that Britain was Norway’s biggest export market and it was “very strange” to reject closer dialogue.
Britain accounts for about a quarter of Norway’s exports – principally oil and gas, which account for nearly 90% of the total, and seafood – and about 6% of its imports.