Thursday, 3 March 2016

Is Norway’s EU relationship a model for the UK?

If you’re in a rush, the short answer to the title question is no. Absolutely not. If you’re not in a rush, allow me to elaborate on why this is the case. ‘Leave’ supporters are generally quite reticent to say what the UK’s relationship with the EU would be in the event of Brexit. They are far, far, more comfortable criticising our current membership, than on setting out an attractive alternative. There’s a good reason for this. None of the alternative relationships currently in existence, as enjoyed by other countries, would be particularly attractive for the UK. In this piece we will examine one such alternative, the one experienced by non-EU member state Norway. And it’s certainly not the relationship ‘Leave’ supporters imply we could achieve after a Brexit.

Brexit supporters talk a lot about reducing immigration and ‘controlling our borders’. Well Norway is part of the European free movement of labour scheme, and has even joined the passport-free Schengen zone. Brexit supporters talk about how much we could save if we didn't contribute financially to the EU, and how European law undermines our sovereignty. Well as we will see Norway still makes a sizeable contribution to the EU’s budget, and implements a good proportion of EU law despite only minimal influence on its formation. In brief, if you’re a Brexit supporter trying to secure votes, I wouldn't recommend the Norwegian model.

As mentioned previously Norway is not an EU member. Her populace rejected EU membership twice via referendums, albeit by a small majority, in 1972 and 1994. Norway, along with fellow non-EU countries Iceland and Liechtenstein, is however signed up to the European Economic Area (EEA). This gives Norway equal tariff free access to the EU’s single market, but this access comes at a price. For a start Norway has to accept EU regulations on the free movement of goods, persons and capital. This means that EU nationals have the right to work in Norway, and Norwegian nationals have the right to work in other EU countries. In short, if the UK votes to leave the EU and then signs up to a Norwegian style deal, it will make precisely no difference to EU migration. EU nationals would still have the right to live and work in the UK. EEA countries also make a significant financial contribution to the EU, in return for single market access. Brexit supporters enthusiastically point out that the UK is a net contributor to the EU, yet the same is true of Norway which isn’t an EU member. Indeed, according to the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, between 2009 and 2014 Norway provided almost €1.8 billion to the EU, as a result of her EEA membership and participation in various EU programmes.

Perhaps the most inappropriate part of Norway’s relationship with the EU, as a potential model for the UK, is the impact it has on sovereignty. Brexit supporters tend to place great emphasis on the importance of British sovereignty, which they argue is being undermined by European bureaucrats. They frequently allege that our EU membership weakens our democracy. Now of course this is unfair, and indeed is insulting to those who genuinely live under non-democratic systems of Government. It’s also ironic. Prominent Eurosceptics frequently criticise the EU for its lack of democracy, but never suggest measures, such as a directly elected EU President or giving the EU Parliament the power to introduce legislation, which would help to remedy this problem. Indeed, when the main parties in the European Parliament agreed to support the candidate of whichever party got the most seats in the 2014 European Parliament elections, a step which made the EU more democratic, it was Eurosceptics like Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan who objected most fervently.  

What then, would the implications of a Norwegian style relationship with the EU be for UK sovereignty? The answer I’m afraid, is terrible, and certainly significantly worse than our current relationship. Norway’s EEA membership requires her to adopt EU laws which relate to the common market. Norway has also agreed to align itself with the EU in a number of other policy areas, and so implements EU laws in these areas as well. However Norway has almost no influence on any of these laws, which it agrees to enforce, having little input beyond the right to be consulted. The result, alas, is a democratic deficit. Once EU laws are ratified the Joint Committee of the EEA looks to extend them, usually without amendment, to non-EU members of the EEA such as Norway. As a result, according to the House of Commons library’s ‘Norway’s relationship with the EU’ report, Norway incorporates around three-quarters of EU legislation into its domestic law. EU law impacts around 170 out of a total of 600 Norwegian statues, and approximately 1,000 Norwegian regulations. Norway even adheres voluntarily to EU fisheries quotas and conservation schemes.

To examine its relationship with Europe the Norwegian Government set up an EEA Review Committee, which reported in January 2012. It’s worth quoting the part of the conclusion that notes Norway’s lack of influence over the EU law which it has to adopt:

‘Norway is in practice bound to adopt EU policies and rules on a broad range of issues without being a member and without voting rights. This raises democratic problems. Norway is not represented in decision-making processes that have direct consequences for Norway, and neither do we have significant influence on them’.

This point was repeated on 2 March, in an interview with the BBC, by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg who stated that ‘We are integrating the laws they are making for the single market…but basically we have left part of our democracy to Europe’. She went on to rubbish the notion that the UK could gain single-market access in the event of Brexit, without accepting free movement of labour, stating that ‘To believe you’ll get everything you want without giving something back does not happen in any political body’. Brexit supporters assert that our EU membership undermines our democracy. This is deeply simplistic, but Norway’s lack of EU membership certainly does undermine her democracy. Norway implements a large body of EU law, despite having no input into its formulation. From a democratic point of view, for the UK to leave the EU and adopt a Norwegian style relationship with its institutions would be a major step back. The former Swedish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt recently described Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein as having a ‘sort of satellite status’ to the EU. Surely that’s not a relationship that would work for the UK?

To sum up, Norway may not be an EU member, but she does have to implement a good proportion of EU law, pay into the EU budget and accept free movement of labour. This model would clearly not be acceptable for the UK. It’s about time Brexit supporters stop accusing their opponents of ‘scaremongering’, and start asserting what relationship Britain should have with the EU if we leave, and how this can realistically be achieved. They will struggle with this, because there are no easy answers. 

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