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Anne Elizabeth Stie and Jarle Trondal on how Norway hasn’t cracked life outside the EU

Anne Elizabeth Stie - Credit: Archant

The Norway model – of life outside the EU – is one that excites many Brexiteers, and comforts many Remainers. But here, Anne Elizabeth Stie and Jarle Trondal, two of the country’s leading political experts, explain why the Nordic nation is on a path that may satisfy neither side – one that relegates its politicians to lobbyists and puts the bureaucrats in control.

During the referendum campaign, a number of foreign leaders urged the UK not to leave the European Union – among them Erna Solberg, the Norwegian prime minister.

Her intervention was a particularly significant one. Her country has, in British eyes, blossomed outside the EU. For many Brexiteers, it offers the template for how their country should operate outside the EU: with a financial arrangement that secures full access to the European Economic Area.

Yet when asked for her opinion on whether Norway could provide a model for the UK, the warning from Solberg could not have been more stark: ‘You won’t like it.’

Now, as Britain tries to work out just how Brexit will mean Brexit, the Norwegian experience is once again being scrutinised. Whether or not, the country provides a ready-made template for the UK remains to be seen – though that seems unlikely. But certainly there are lessons that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and his team can learn.

Certainly, there are similarities between the two countries. As in the UK, the relationship with the EU has been keenly contested in Norway. The country has twice rejected membership, through referenda in 1972 – when the UK and Denmark entered the union (along with Ireland) – and in 1994, when Sweden and Finland joined. Only Iceland of its Nordic neighbours remained outside and the two became (together with Liechtenstein) co-founders of the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement, which came into force in 1994, at the same time as the Maastricht Treaty.

The agreement paved the way for one of the world’s largest integrated economic areas by not only incorporating full members of the EU, but also these non-members.

Its cornerstone is the ‘four freedoms’ – free movement of goods, services, persons and capital – and the EEA Agreement commits all parties to adopt and implement internal market legislation in a dynamic and homogenous manner. Indeed, the words ‘dynamic’ and ‘homogenous’ are central for understanding the nature of the EEA Agreement.

They mean that – like EU members – Norway is obliged consecutively to incorporate all relevant EU legislation into national law to guarantee equal market conditions. However, unlike EU members, it does not have formal access to the political process by which these laws are decided: in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

It is these principles of dynamism and homogeneity that distinguish the EEA Agreement from any other trade model anywhere in the world. So the moment the EU Council and Parliament jointly pass an EEA-relevant legal act, the agreement itself is automatically updated (after it has been rubber-stamped through the Norwegian parliament).

As a result, those non-member countries never get out of step with EU law. Renegotiation is never needed.

As a consequence, the relationship with the EU and its single market is a lot less bureaucratic and easier to operate than, for instance, the Swiss model.

Switzerland may be the fourth member of the European Free Trade Association – a requirement for joining the EEA Agreement – but it has complicated its relationship, by opting for a range of bilateral agreements to secure its access to the internal market – including on the four freedoms.

Similar to other non-members covered by the EEA, the Swiss model still reflects the principle of homogeneity: its relationship covers a number of policy areas. But unlike those others, the dynamism is gone: the Swiss model is static, requiring constant re-negotiation to update agreements.

This Swiss approach is based on the equivalence of laws between the EU and Switzerland. The purer EEA model – as exemplified by Norway – relies on the unilateral incorporation of EU legal acts. This is hardly ‘taking back control’.

One attraction for Brexiteers of the Norway model is that, at heart, its relationship with the EU – via the EEA Agreement – is all about market integration and not those other policy areas that the EU has extended into. But the reality is not so simple. Most EU regulations governing the EEA reach well beyond, into areas like social policy and consumer protection. The size and scale of the EU mean it is difficult to disentangle what is EEA-relevant and what is not. This is further complicated by the fact that the EU increasingly concludes legislative packages rather than single legal acts. The EEA Agreement does not cover policy areas such as agriculture, fisheries, customs policy, monetary union, foreign and security policy, justice and home affairs. But Norway has unilaterally sought formalised co-operation in all these areas.

In fact, in addition to the EEA Agreement, Norway has signed 73 agreements with the EU, including co-operation on policing, immigration and border control, energy and environmental policies, research and education.

Apart from the Schengen Agreement – where Norway also has access (but no voting rights) to Council meetings – the nature of these arrangements all, more or less, reflect the same structural architecture as the EEA Agreement itself: committing Norway to implement EU legislation without political participation.

And there, again, is the fundamental dilemma associated with the EEA and the Norway model: yes, you can have market access through legal harmonisation. But you can’t have a formal say on how, when and what laws are introduced.

Economically and administratively, the EEA is a model which works well. But it comes close to being a voluntary political and democratic abdication for Norway.

During both Norwegian referenda campaigns on EU membership, the main argument advocated by opponents of joining was that sovereignty and democratic self-government could only be maintained outside the Union. The Leave campaign in the UK prevailed with a similar argument.

Yet the irony is that, while that campaign won in Norway, they have, in many ways, lost every day since. For the preconditions which underpin its relationship with the EU neither allow for national sovereignty nor democratic self-government in key policy areas.

To maintain its status as non-member,

political rights to participate in EU decision-making are traded in for full access to the internal market and, consequently, the obligation to adopt and implement all EU legal acts in these areas. Parliamentary treatment of these acts in the Norwegian Parliament (Storting) is but a rubber-stamp procedure, as they pass without debate or scrutiny.

The EEA Agreement is designed in ways that result in a political retreat for the Norwegian political elite, leaving legal harmonisation largely to bureaucrats. In effect, contacts between Norwegian authorities and the EU muddle through the bureaucratic arenas of civil servants and experts from national ministries and agencies on the Norwegian side, and the European Commission and EU agencies on the EU side.

Norwegian politicians hardly meet their European colleagues in formal decisionmaking situations – instead they are downgraded to lobbyists left to informal channels such as lunches or in the corridors of the EU institutions.

One implication is a profound depoliticisation of law-making in Norway. Even highly-salient political decisions are moved out of political arenas, out of public debate, and far off voters’ attention. In short, the EEA model sidelines elected representatives and citizens’ possibilities to hold decision-makers to account, thus improving technocracy by putting bureaucrats, civil servants and experts in the front seat.

More recently, institutional developments in the EU have made the EEA model even more cumbersome. One is the emergence of an ever-more powerful European Parliament. This is problematic for EEA countries because of the bureaucratic nature of the EEA Agreement which directs contact mainly towards the Commission and EU agencies.

Another challenge relates to how the EU makes laws. By making law ‘packages’, rather than single ‘decisions’, it becomes more and more difficult for EEA countries to disentangle which legal acts apply to the EEA Agreement and which are clearly not relevant.

This trend towards ‘package law’ also illustrates how laws and policies are inter-related. It becomes continuously more difficult to shield off from the EU policy areas in Norway that fall outside the EEA.

For example, fisheries and agriculture – both outside the Agreement – are increasingly affected by EU competition rules. Norway may thus be obliged to harmonise laws in other policy areas where the EEA Agreement in principle does not apply. Already, the EEA Agreement has extended beyond what was intended when Norway signed up to it in 1992. And given its ‘dynamic’ status, this is not likely to stop.

All this aside, the EEA has worked well for the Norwegian economy – but with serious democratic deficits detrimental to both national sovereignty abroad and popular sovereignty at home. Before the ‘Brexit’ referendum, the choices presented to British citizens seemed quite clear-cut; vote Remain and carry on business as usual. Or, vote Leave and regain national sovereignty and democracy.

After the referendum, however, the landscape is far from black or white, but closer to shades of grey, with no optimal political solution crystallising in the horizon.

Whichever model the UK decides to pursue, the post-Brexit situation shows how deeply interwoven European states have become. Europe is a community of fate. Brexit affects all European states in ways that cannot be easily overseen or governed by single national governments.

Brexit questions the idea of living together politically in Europe. How strong is the mutual commitment to the EU? How should it be organised? How can it be legitimated? And how should decisions be reached? The historical core of the EU is the idea of a shared market unconstrained by national barriers. The free movement of persons, goods, services and capital supported by an institutional architecture have been the cornerstone of European integration. Without some degree of mutual commitment among its members, the idea as we know it will decay.

So, it would surprise these authors if the EU would allow the UK to free-ride on market access without also having to accept the free movement. So, for this reason, the most likely route for the UK seems to be away from the Norway model. This leaves either a clear ‘leave’… or a future EU membership.

• Anne Elizabeth Stie is head of department/associate professor at the Department of Political Science and Management, University of Agder; Jarle Trondal is a professor at the Department of Political Science and Management, University of Agder, and ARENA – Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo

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