Why a future centre-left government could distance Norway from the EU

Why a future centre-left government could distance Norway from the EU
Norwegian Centre Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum. File photo: AFP
Unfazed by the UK's struggle through its EU departure, Eurosceptics in Norway have seen support rising for further distance to Brussels although the country isn't an EU member.

Currently in opposition, the centrist and traditionally agrarian Centre Party's agenda of limiting European influence is resonating with voters in the Scandinavian nation, which currently has close ties to the EU through trade and travel agreements but is not a member.

“Decisions that affect Norway and Norwegian resources must be taken in Norway,” Emilie Enger Mehl, a Centre Party lawmaker on the Norwegian parliament's committee on foreign affairs, told AFP.

Shockwaves ran through Norwegian politics in early December when a poll showed 22.1 percent of voters would back the Centre — catapulting them from their usual role as a junior coalition partner to potentially the country's largest party.

Like several other Eurosceptic movements across the continent, the party seeks a total reset of relations with the European Union.

Norwegians have rejected EU membership in two referendums, in 1972 and 1994, but the country is closely linked to Brussels through its membership in the European Economic Area (EEA) and the open border Schengen agreement.

While the EEA gives Norway access to the EU's single market, which accounts for 80 percent of the country's exports, membership also requires Norway to obey European regulations — without having a say over them.

“Too much power is being transferred to the EU via the EEA agreement,” Enger Mehl told AFP.

“We should replace it with a free trade agreement involving a bilateral relationship that does not involve the transfer of so much power,” she added.

For a time the party was confident it would be able to tear up existing treaties and renegotiate a new agreement as easily as once promised by Brexiteers.

But years of arduous talks between London and Brussels have prompted the Centre Party to soften its stance.

Even so, its prospects of joining or even leading a new coalition government mean it is still determined to explore alternatives to the EEA.

Analyst Svein Tore Marthinsen said the Centre Party's pushing back against Europe is likely not the only or even the main reason for its spike in popularity.

In fact, most Norwegians — including Centre Party voters — see staying in the EEA as “a compromise, a satisfactory intermediate solution”, he said, even if they remain strongly opposed to full EU membership.

Rather, “the Centre Party's popularity is part of a broader trend that sees political leaders agitating for putting the interests of their countries first, whether it be Trump and his 'America First' or Brexit… together with disavowing liberal and global elites,” Marthinsen added.

The party also owes its recent success to its defence of rural communities against centralisation under Oslo and its leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, a jovial farmer known for his wild laughs and his ability to insert “Norway” and “Norwegian” into almost every sentence.

The 42-year-old has challenged the rules of political communication, for instance by dressing up as a scarecrow and singing on a TV game show.

Some see him as a potential prime minister — or at least a political heavyweight likely to impose many of his views on the Labour Party, the traditionally dominant force seen as the Centre's most likely coalition ally.

The Labour Party has long had a pro-EU stance, but cracks in the consensus have appeared and its voter base is eroding.

As for the right-wing coalition currently in power, touching the EEA is off the table.

“I believe that as time goes on, we will see even more clearly how complicated it is to leave the European Economic Community,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg said at a press conference last week.

“Political parties in Norway that think it is a good idea to leave the EEA because we can negotiate new, better agreements should look more closely across the North Sea,” she said, sounding a word of warning in reference to the current chaos around Brexit in the UK.

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