Through the night of 23 June, Norwegians celebrate Sankthansaften, a magical midsummer festival in which giant fires burn and partying continues into the early hours. Tradition has it that the weather that night sets the pattern for the next six months.
This coming midsummer night, both sides of Norway’s political divide will be looking up to skies for a storm brewing from across the North Sea that could transform their political climate not just until Christmas, but for a generation.
Pro- and anti-EU parties are planned in Oslo for the night to await the news from the UK referendum. “A Brexit vote will create conditions for a new debate about Europe here in Norway,” said Hilde Nylén, the general secretary of the leftist-led No to Europe campaign. “It will provide us with a completely new direction and options. Most of the pro-EU Norwegian government fear that debate.”
On the other side, the Norway’s European minister, Elisabeth Aspaker, dreads the idea of the UK joining her country outside the European Union. “The EU is facing so many challenges on migration, growth, security how we follow up the agreements at Paris on climate change. It would be a huge step backwards if the UK was to leave, and would have huge implications for us,” says Aspaker, a member of the centre-right Conservatives.
Either way, wealthy Oslo – with its designer shops, extravagant new opera house and even more extravagant cost of living – knows it is more than a bystander in the Brexit debate, and has instead become a battleground in the UK referendum itself.
In the UK, disputes circulate about whether the Norwegian model is one that could be followed in the event of the country leaving the EU. Could the European Economic Area, the little-understood agreement that has allowed prosperous Norway, along with Liechtenstein and Iceland, to be half in, half out of the EU, become the model for the UK?
The EEA brings together all EU states and three of the four members of the European Free Trade Association, which has 25 free trade agreements with 36 countries. Those three non EU states, through the EEA agreement, are part of many EU structures, notably the single market, but importantly remain outside the euro, fisheries, agriculture, justice and home affairs. The EEA and an EFTA secretariat in Brussels manage the relationship between the EU and the three non-EU states.
Politically it is easy to see why Eurosceptics in Britain feel tempted by the Norway example. Bombarded by the government’s risk message, the leave campaign has struggled to describe what lies beyond the exit door and make Brexit seem worth the risk. Internal divisions have caused the campaign to float conflicting options: Switzerland, Canada, the World Trade Organisation or a bespoke British arrangement.
As the price for access to the EU’s single market for its fish and energy, Norway accepted in 1992 the free movement of workers and now probably pays more per capita in grants to EU states than the UK. Oslo airport at the weekend is jammed with many migrants returning to their homes outside Norway
Worse Norway does not sit or votee on any EU committees and is portrayed as a willing serf waiting by the computer to download its instructions from Brussels. It is a case of not being in Europe, but still run by Europe./ “Some say we are more integrated in the EU than some full EU member states”, says Aspaker.
But this may underplay ways in which the Norwegian debate can be misread and manipulated.
Many sceptics cite Norway and the surrounding EEA bureaucracy as an important interim staging post rather than a final destination. They recognise it is a temporary, if imperfect, escape route for the UK providing access to the single market without all the political controls. A weekend YouGov poll commisisoned by the Adam Smith Institute found strong support for the Norway option as the means to a soft Brexit
Figures such as Nylén argue that Norway’s legal agreement with the EU provides greater flexibility than the political class pretends. She claims supporters of full EU membership – the bulk of the parliament – play up a powerlessness in an effort to persuade the public to join the EU. The Norwegians have voted twice in referendums against EU membership and polls at present show 72% opposition to joining.
Ulf Sverdrup, the head of an international thinktank, was commissioned by the government in 2010 to review the Norwegian-EU relationship. He has meticulously charted the degree to which Norway had been Europeanised. Though the figures are contested, his report shows 75% of EU laws are incorporated in Norway. The number of EU legal documents had gown eightfold, leaving a constitutional patchwork that few Norwegians understand.
Sverdrup’s 900-page report might have reopened the debate on a membership application, but came out in 2012 at a moment when Norway’s economy was booming and Europe’s was sagging.
Most Norwegians, said Aspakar, “are happy to leave arrangements as they are. We feel we are Europeans and yet we can now do what ever we like.”
Sitting in her office in the ministry of foreign affairs, she added: “It is us politicians in Norway that feels this lack of democracy when you see all this legislation we are taking in without having a say when decisions are made.”
Aspaker manages the patchwork Norway-EU interface every day and, along with the EEA bureaucracy, has to track what the European commission is planning. She says Norway has as many as 50 experts permanently seconded in the commission advising the EU on issues such as fisheries, climate change and energy. In addition there are 30 Norwegian civil servants in Brussels representing every Norwegian government department apart from culture.
“Our mission to the EU is the largest that we have. There are people from every political area, and if you ask the NGOS, the unions and even local and regional political forces, they all have offices in Brussels, just to be close to the commission, the parliament and points of decision,” said Aspaker.
“Three-quarters of our exports go to the EU, so it is vital the relationship works. The best strategy is to have a say in the very early stage. It is much tougher if you ask for changes late. Dialogue is best.”
The prospect of the fifth biggest economy wanting to apply to join the EEA after Brexit perplexes her. “If the Brits are against all the regulations made in Brussels, I think the EEA way is not the solution. Being an EEA member means you are not at the table, yet you have to take in much of the legislation. When you listen to the debate going on on the leave side in Britain, it is hard to imagine that the EEA should be a solution to their problems.”
Aspaker could not imagine, for instance, how free movement of workers could be removed from the EEA agreement. “The EU’s four freedoms, including the free movement of citizens, are necessary for a business friendly environment. We have really needed the workers from the rest of the EU. I do not know how our economy would have coped without, including in construction, and engineers in the oil industry,” she said.
Yet the No to Europe campaign’s chief researcher, Morten Harper, says Norway could assert its independence far more than it does within the context of the EEA, and by extension so could the UK if it ever joined the club after leaving the EU. Norway for instance chose voluntarily to join the Schengen agreement, in part to maintain its open borders with Scandinavian countries. In the next few weeks the Storting, the country’s parliament, is to vote on whether to make its financial services subject to the EU supervision. Norway could have done more to resist EU expansionism.
Harper claims Norway has greater flexibility than it exercises to reject a EU directives by saying it is not relevant to the EEA agreement. And its “fees” to the EU are in fact grants that Oslo views as a moral obligation to tackle poverty, not as a price for access to the single market, he claims.
But is hard to see the EU being obliging to Norway and Britain if together they tried to use the ambiguities in the EEA agreement to assert independence from Brussels.
The EU could easily scuttle the Norwegian economy by putting up trade barriers. As Aspaker pointed out: “Fresh fish stuck at borders will not remain fresh for long.”