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

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.

Why a future centre-left government could distance Norway from the EU
Norwegian Centre Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum. File photo: AFP

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.

READ ALSO: Brexit: European nationals warned of change in travel rules when visiting UK in future

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How roaming charges will hit travellers between the UK and EU in 2022

Trips between Europe and the UK and vice versa may well become more expensive for many travellers in 2022 as UK mobile operators bring back roaming charges. However there is some good news for all EU residents.

People look at their mobile phones.
How travellers between the EU and UK could be hit by roaming charges in 2022 (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP)

EU ‘roams like at home’ at least until 2032

First the good news. The European Union is set to decide to extend free roaming until 2032, so if you have your phone contract registered in an EU country you don’t have to worry about extra charges.

In addition to waiving the charges, the new regulation aims to ensure that travellers benefit of the same quality of service they have at home when travelling within the EU. If they have a 5G contract, for instance, they should also get 5G through the EU if possible. 

Under new rules, travellers should be given information about access to emergency services, including for people with disabilities.

Consumers should also be protected from prohibitive bills caused by inadvertent roaming on satellite networks when travelling on ferries or aeroplanes.

The final text of the new regulation was provisionally agreed in December. The European Parliament and Council will formally endorse it in the coming weeks.

UK companies reintroducing roaming charges this year

And now the bad news for travellers to the EU from the UK

Customers of UK mobile phone operators face higher fees when travelling in Europe this year, as some companies are bringing back roaming charges for calls, text messages and data downloaded during temporary stays in the EU.

This is one of the many consequences of the UK withdrawal from the European Union. Because of Brexit, the UK is no longer part of the EU’s “roam like at home” initiative which was designed to avoid shocking bills after holidays or business trips abroad.

The EU’s roaming regulation allows people travelling in the European Economic Area (EU countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) to make calls, send texts and browse the web using their regular plans at no extra cost. Switzerland is not part of the scheme, although some mobile phone providers offer roaming deals or special prices to cover travel in Switzerland.

Under EU rules, if the plan’s allowance is exceeded, the roaming fee is also capped at €0.032 per minute of voice call, €0.01 per SMS and €2.5 + VAT per gigabyte downloaded in 2022 (it was €3 + VAT in 2021). The wholesale price networks can charge each other is capped too.

The regulation was adopted for an initial period of five years and is due to expire on June 30th 2022. But the EU is preparing to extend it for another ten years. This time, however, the UK will not be covered. 

Which UK companies are reintroducing charges?

Three major UK network operators this year will reintroduce roaming charges for travels in the EU.

As of January 6th 2022, Vodafone UK will charge customers with monthly plans started after August 11th 2021 £2 per day to roam in the EU. The amount can be reduced to £1 per day by purchasing a pass for 8 or 15 days. Free roaming continues for earlier contracts, Data Xtra plans and for travels to Ireland.  

From March 3rd 2022, EE will also charge £2 per day to roam in 47 European locations, Ireland excluded. The new policy will apply to plans started from July 7th 2021. Alternatively, EE offers the Roam Abroad Pass, which allows roaming abroad for a month for £10. 

Another operator that announced a £2 daily fee to roam in the EEA, except for Ireland, is Three UK. The charge will apply from May 23rd 2022 for plans started or upgraded since October 1st 2021. The data allowance in monthly plans that can be used abroad is also capped at 12 gigabytes. 

O2 already introduced in August last year a 25-gigabyte cap (or less if the plan’s allowance is lower) to data that can be downloaded for free while travelling in Europe. Above that, customers are charged £3.50 per gigabyte. 

Other mobile operators said they have no intention to bring back roaming charges in the short term, but if won’t be surprising if they do so in the future. 

Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection Policy at UK consumer organisation Which? was disappointed at the changes and urged the UK and EU to “strike a deal on roaming charges” to stop companies “chipping away at the roaming benefits customers have become used to” and “prevent the return of the excessive charges people used to encounter.” 

By law, charges for mobile data used abroad remain capped at £45 per month and consumers can only continue data roaming only if they actively chose to keep spending. 

What about EU residents travelling to the UK?

In the EU, most mobile phone operators seem keen to continue free roaming for travels to the UK, but some have announced changes too.

In Sweden, Telenor aligned UK’s prices to those of non-EEA countries on May 1st 2021 while still allowing free roaming for some plans. 

Another Swedish operator, Telia, ended free roaming with the UK and Gibraltar on September 13th 2021 giving customers the option to access 200 megabytes of data for SEK 99 per day. People travelling to the UK can also buy a weekly pass allowing to make calls, send texts and download 1 GB of data. 

In Germany Telefónica Deutschland and 1 & 1 have extended current conditions for the UK until at least the end of 2022. However companies may keep other options open depending on negotiations with roaming partners. 

A1 Telekom Austria brought roaming charges back for the UK last June. Customers now have to pay €2.49 per minute for outgoing calls and €1.49 per minute for incoming calls if they are in the UK or Gibraltar. An SMS costs 99 cents and each 100 KB of data €1.49. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.