Anti-EU sentiment escalates in NORWAY, and after a torrid time with Brexit, Hungary and Poland, is Brussels on the ropes?
In a bad week for the European Union not only has it struggled with torturous negotiations over Brexit and been humiliated into watering down funding according to rule-of-law proposals by Hungary and Poland it now faces even further aggro from an unexpected quarter - Norway.
Although not even a member of the EU, Norway can still make life awkward for Brussels, thanks to a 1994 agreement it signed to gain access to the single market that’s coming up for renegotiation in 2022. The noises it’s making now are surely causing some concern at the bloc’s HQ.
Oslo pays around €890 million a year to Brussels for membership of the European Economic Area which includes non-EU countries Iceland and Liechtenstein along with all the EU member states. That money goes where Brussels chooses, on various programmes and agencies and grants to poorer nations. Norway has no say in this but that was their choice.
Back in 1994, Norway voted against joining the EU when the majority of its people decided that they did not want to be governed by laws made elsewhere.
Heading the charge in that 90s vote was the anti-EU Senterpartiet (Center Party) which has recently re-emerged as a political force and edged ahead of both the ruling conservative Høyre and traditionally labour Arbeiderpartiet in a poll earlier this month, putting it on 22.1 per cent, almost two clear points better than both rivals.
And that has been noticed. Despite accusations from PM Erna Solberg that the Senterpartiet is being reckless with its anti-EU rhetoric, it was the government that announced on Friday it would ban EU and UK boats from fishing in Norwegian waters if Brexit negotiations failed to reach a deal.
Norway had been hoping to sign a three-way deal on fishing with Britain and the EU but the drawn-out Brexit talks have scuppered that, so now Oslo has decided neither will have access to its seas. It’s no tiddler of an issue for Britain, with its income from fish and shellfish from the waters in question worth more than £32 million a year.
Fresh from humiliation at the hands of Hungary and Poland, Brussels has been blindsided by this but still has to sort Brexit which continues to distract it from so much pressing business elsewhere. Now it needs to focus on the normally docile Norway.
Because Euroscepticism has suddenly burst back into flame in Oslo, having been smouldering away since the mid-90s. The ink had barely dried on the EEA deal Norway had just signed up to when the result of the EU membership referendum was delivered: thanks, but no thanks.
But still, the Norwegians were determined not to miss out on that Holy Grail, the single market. To achieve that, they put the very principles they were trying to protect, self-determination, sovereignty and democracy on the line.
More than 20 years after that fateful decision, University of Oslo academic Erik O Eriksen said the repercussions had been that, “every government since then has brought Norway closer to the EU, and a number of additional parallel agreements have been signed, which include border controls (Schengen), asylum and police cooperation. Norway even puts troops at the disposal of the EU’s battle groups. Approximately three-quarters of the legislation that applies to the member states applies to Norway.”
No-one ever envisaged being drawn into the EU orbit to that extent and now with the clarity afforded by hindsight, the Norwegians are experiencing buyer’s remorse.
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Among leading politicians in Oslo, talk is now turning to “the deal” presently in place. There are rumblings of a “bad deal” of “Canadian-style trading terms” and of slashing the hefty grants Norway pays the EU.
The agreement with Brussels is up for negotiating in 2022 but in the meantime there is a Norwegian general election. No prizes for guessing what the hot issue might be.
Emboldened by the successful tactics of Budapest and Warsaw - and very much to a lesser extent - London in playing hardball against Brussels and forcing them to see things their way, Norwegian Eurosceptics have clearly been watching the argy-bargy and will be busy working up their own playbook.
That means more headaches for beleaguered Brussels officials as the fire fighting continues. Now Norway, they must be wondering who is next.
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