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EUROPEAN UNION

Peace Prize to EU or rights activists?

The crisis-hit European Union, Belarusian or Russian human rights activists, or a non-violent protest theorist whose ideas inspired the Arab Spring? Speculation ahead of Friday's Nobel Peace Prize announcement is rife.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee that awards the prize had 231 individuals and organizations on its top-secret list, with the laureate to be revealed in Oslo at 11:00am (0900 GMT).

The field of possible winners has long appeared wide open, but by late Thursday Europe had rushed to the forefront of speculation.

The usually well-informed public broadcaster NRK suggested on the eve of the big announcement that the committee this year appeared set to finally hand the prize to the EU, 60 years after the birth of its predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community, which helped bring peace and stability to a continent freshly ripped apart by war.

The broadcaster also cited the continued struggle for civil rights in former communist Eastern Europe and Mexican Bishop Raul Vera Lopez as top picks, and said it had reason to believe there would be only one laureate this year.

Last year's prize was split between Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her compatriot "peace warrior" Leymah Gbowee and Yemen's Arab Spring activist Tawakkul Karman.

Nobel Committee president Thorbjørn Jagland was as usual vague about who would receive this year's honour, telling the Aftenposten daily only that the five-member jury "made a unanimous decision and it was not especially difficult to reach."

Commercial broadcaster TV2's list of likely picks, also often insightful, was meanwhile topped by American political science professor Gene Sharp for his theories on non-violent struggle that have inspired popular uprisings around the world, including the Arab Spring.

The only name the two broadcasters had in common was surprisingly the EU — membership of which Nobel Peace Prize host country Norway has twice rejected, in 1972 and 1994.

"The European Union is in the middle of one of its worst crises, but perhaps it is precisely now the peace and stabilisation project deserves a hand from the 'no' country Norway?" NRK said.

Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, a key architect of a united Europe, has been mentioned by other observers as a possible laureate as well.

Committee president Jagland is also the secretary general of the Council of Europe and a fervent supporter of the 27-nation bloc, but recent polls show nearly three-quarters of Norwegians are opposed to their country joining the EU.

If the Nobel winds blow towards eastern Europe this year, prize watchers suggest that Belarus human rights activist Ales Belyatsky, sentenced to four and a half years in a prison camp after what the EU decried as a "political trial," would be a likely pick.

A number of activists from Russia also figure among the most widely predicted to pocket the prize, including 85-year-old Lyudmila Alekseyeva, who has spent the past half-century defending human rights in the Soviet Union and in Russia.

Human rights group Memorial and one of its key figures, Svetlana Gannushkina, were also mentioned among possible Russian winners, as was Moscow Echo Radio, described by some as the last bastion of free media in the country, and its chief editor Alexei Venediktov.

Twenty years after the Nobel Peace Prize last went to Latin America, when Guatamalan Rigoberta Menchu took the 1992 honour, NRK also hinted the nod could go to Mexican Bishop Lopez, who has defended the most vulnerable in a Mexico caught in a bloody struggle between drug cartels and the military.

The winner or winners will receive the prize, consisting of a Nobel diploma, a gold medal and 8.0 million Swedish kronor ($1.2 million), at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10th, the anniversary of Swedish industrialist and prize creator Alfred Nobel's death.

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EUROPEAN UNION

Norway flirts with the idea of a ‘mini Brexit’ in election campaign

On paper, Norway's election on Monday looks like it could cool Oslo's relationship with the European Union but analysts say that appearances may be deceiving.

Norway flirts with the idea of a 'mini Brexit' in election campaign
The Centre Party's leader Slagsvold Vedum has called for Norway's relationship with the European Union to be renegotiated. Photo: Gorm Kallestad / NTB / AFP

After eight years of a pro-European centre-right government, polls suggest the Scandinavian country is headed for a change of administration.

A left-green coalition in some shape or form is expected to emerge victorious, with the main opposition Labour Party relying on the backing of several eurosceptic parties to obtain a majority in parliament.

In its remote corner of Europe, Norway is not a member of the EU but it is closely linked to the bloc through the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement.

The deal gives Norway access to the common market in exchange for the adoption of most European directives.

Both the Centre Party and the Socialist Left — the Labour Party’s closest allies, which together have around 20 percent of voter support — have called for the marriage of convenience to be dissolved.

“The problem with the agreement we have today is that we gradually transfer more and more power from the Storting (Norway’s parliament), from Norwegian lawmakers to the bureaucrats in Brussels who are not accountable,” Centre Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum said in a recent televised debate.

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Defending the interests of its rural base, the Centre Party wants to replace the EEA with trade and cooperation agreements.

However, Labour leader Jonas Gahr Store, who is expected to become the next prime minister, does not want to jeopardise the country’s ties to the EU, by far Norway’s biggest trading partner.

“If I go to my wife and say ‘Look, we’ve been married for years and things are pretty good, but now I want to look around to see if there are any other options out there’… Nobody (in Brussels) is going to pick up the phone” and be willing to renegotiate the terms, Gahr Store said in the same debate.

Running with the same metaphor, Slagsvold Vedum snapped back: “If your wife were riding roughshod over you every day, maybe you would react.”

EU a ‘tough negotiating partner’

Initially, Brexit gave Norwegian eurosceptics a whiff of hope. But the difficulties in untangling British-EU ties put a damper on things.

“In Norway, we saw that the EU is a very tough negotiating partner and even a big country like Britain did not manage to win very much in its negotiations,” said Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

While Norwegians have rejected EU membership twice, in referendums in 1972 and 1994, a majority are in favour of the current EEA agreement.

During the election campaign, the EU issue has gradually been pushed to the back burner as the Centre Party — which briefly led in the polls — has seen its support deflate.

The nature of Norway’s relationship to the bloc will depend on the distribution of seats in parliament, but experts generally agree that little is likely to change.

“The Labour Party will surely be firm about the need to maintain the EEA agreement,” said Johannes Bergh, political scientist at the Institute for Social Research, “even if that means making concessions to the other parties in other areas”.

Closer cooperation over climate?

It’s possible that common issues, like the fight against climate change, could in fact bring Norway and the EU even closer.

“Cooperation with the EU will very likely become stronger because of the climate issue” which “could become a source of friction” within the next coalition, Sverdrup suggested.

“Even though the past 25 years have been a period of increasingly close cooperation, and though we can therefore expect that it will probably continue, there are still question marks” surrounding Norway’s future ties to the EU, he said.

These likely include the inclusion and strength of eurosceptics within the future government as well as the ability of coalition partners to agree on all EU-related issues.

Meanwhile, Brussels is looking on cautiously. The EEA agreement is “fundamental” for relations between the EU and its
partners Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, according to EU spokesman Peter Stano.

But when it comes to the rest, “we do not speculate on possible election outcomes nor do we comment on different party positions.”

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