Eurosceptics point to the prosperous Scandinavian country as the perfect example of life outside the EU. But what would life be like for Britons under the Norwegian model?
At Karl Johans Gate, Oslo’s main shopping thoroughfare, the Observer conducted its own European referendum. Although rudimentary and with few scientific outcomes, it was a telling snapshot of a European nation that dares to exist and flourish outside the European Union.
A suitable venue was chosen (The Scots Man pub) and, over a couple of large Drambuies, the poll was diverse, inclusive and monitored by Frank, the genial bar manager and my new friend. There was only one question: Europe – in or out? Frank, unfazed by his neutral observer status, led the way. “Norway simply doesn’t need Europe, but they need us. I’m out. Why would we go in?”
Karen, who chooses to spend her autumn years in the company of Kronenbourg and is none the worse for it, said: “I am also out. Life here is good.” Arvid, her husband, said: “I’m out. We Norwegians have always been suspicious of Europe.” At the end of the bar, the No narrative was only slightly abridged by Erik and Kjetil, two young professionals working in the government quarter. “It doesn’t really matter either way,” said Kjetil. “It will never happen because of our great standard of living but, let’s face it, politically we are mere puppets of Brussels. We accept all their laws, yet have no say in making them.” So, 3-0 to the anti-Europeans and two abstentions.
None of the participants was aware of the country’s poster-boy status in the United Kingdom, where it is held up as an example of what can be achieved outside the EU, where wisdom once held that there could only be weeping and gnashing of teeth. As Portugal, Iceland, Greece and Spain, the four Pigs of Europe’s fiscal apocalypse, turn on their spit, the cries of the Tory right clamour for secession from the EU. “Look at Norway,” they cry, “we could be like them.” And David Cameron, contemplating what was previously thought impossible – defeat by Ed Miliband – is preparing to give them their longed-for referendum. “Look at Norway,” say the Scots nationalists, “we also could be like them.”
So emerges the United Kingdom’s European countdown conundrum: The Tory Little Englanders want out of Europe and cite Norway’s riches; the Scottish nationalists want out of Britain and into Europe, but also covet Norway’s beguiling self-determination. Except… Norway isn’t that self-determined and Cameron ought to be careful what he is wishing for.
Norway is a member of the European Economic Area group of nations which comprises the EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. The EEA agreement, the brainchild of the then European commission president Jacques Delors, was established in 1992 and permits those three countries to participate in the European Union’s internal markets, but obliges them to adopt all European legislation except that which pertains to agriculture and fisheries.
In 2010 the Norwegian government commissioned a committee of academics and policy specialists to review the country’s relationship with the EU since it joined the EEA. They produced a 900-page opus called Outside and Inside: Norway’s Agreements with the European Union. Among its main conclusions was that Norway, although not an EU member, nevertheless enjoyed benefits commensurate with being a “three-quarter” member. In effect, it was as European as any member state.
The EEA mechanism is what drives Norway’s relationship with the European Union and, on the face it, it has done no harm. At less than 4%, its unemployment rate barely causes a ripple, while its standard of living, built on oil and gas revenue, is the healthiest in Europe. Ah yes, the fabled oil fund that Norway created by first taxing oil companies at around 80% and then diligently saving 4% of it every year for rainy days and assorted capital projects.
Yet if Norway is reckoned to be a three-quarters member of the European Union and allows one-third of EU legislation to form its own legislature, why not become a full member? Wouldn’t its standard of living remain unaffected?
One of the Outside Inside report’s authors is Professor Helene Sjursen, a member of Oslo University’s Arena Centre for European Studies. “I think there was broad agreement on the committee that the Norwegian economy had benefited from the EEA agreement,” she said. “In political terms, though, that will not necessarily satisfy those who say that allowing an organisation such as the EU to provide much of your legislation without being at the table which decides that is undemocratic. I don’t think the strength of the economy would be affected much inside or outside the EU. The most important factor will always be oil and gas revenues. Norwegians also trust the government to manage those revenues properly. In the United Kingdom, the approach to solving economic challenges is to privatise more.”
The mild rebuke to Britain’s recent attitude to capital spending is unmistakable: would a Conservative administration led by Cameron and George Osborne resist the entreaties of big business to be involved in deciding how best to spend oil and gas revenues? Would a New Labour one?
Cameron might also have a problem with the deeply egalitarian character of Norwegian society. This is no ancient state able to opt out of crazed, leftie European legislation on citizens’ rights. Having seceded from Sweden in 1905, Norway is still not fully out of its presentation box. It is thoroughly modern and wants to be regarded as such. It was guaranteeing paternity leave to new fathers when the British equivalent was to allow the proud swain an afternoon off to get bevvied with his pals. Its maternity leave rights grant new mothers a quantum of paid leave that would cause apoplexy at Conservative Central Office and among the members of the CBI.
Oslo’s population of 600,000 is one of the fastest-expanding in Europe, of which around 170,000 are termed as immigrants. Based on current projections, its population will rise to nearly 830,000 before 2050, by which time almost half will be immigrants. According to Mike Fergus, a Scots economist who made Norway his home in 1974, the country is still trying to evolve an enlightened strategy for dealing with immigration, a sentiment that might never emerge from the lips of a British Conservative. Fergus is a partner in the Nordic Consulting Group and has been observing the alarums of the European economy from a safe distance. “In the last 20 years, Norway has enjoyed a golden period of economic and social progress. The gross national income, according to the World Bank, is now more than double that of Britain. So it is obvious why overseas workers and refugees are flowing over its borders. Oslo is now one of the most multicultural cities in Europe.
“I don’t hold with the idea that Norway rides on Brussels’ coat-tails without paying its dues. Oslo gives around €350m annually to fund capital projects in the newest EU states like Poland and Romania. We recently built a smart new £100m maritime museum in Gdansk. Meanwhile, our own is down the road with tumbleweed blowing through it.”
The thought of Cameron explaining to the Commons why Britain has just funded a museum in Bucharest as another factory closes in the north-east carries a curious appeal. At least specific spending details of our EU budget contributions remain reassuringly vague.
Fergus has forged strong links with Scotland’s SNP government and hopes that his native land will one day be able to stand on its own two feet. He is also puzzled by nationalists’ eagerness to join the EU. “I listened to Manuel Barroso telling Scotland that, in the event of independence, they must apply for membership of the EU as a new country. Instead of being defensive about this, I should have thought they should have used it as a rallying cry. They ought to be asking Norway to advise them on how to negotiate the best tax deal with the oil companies after independence.”
It’s hard to disagree on this point. The SNP has gone through contortions over claims that its legal advice on Europe has been drawn on the back of a fag packet. A far more politically adroit position would surely have been to announce that the Scottish people will be allowed to vote on joining the EU after independence. And where would this leave the new Less Great Britain following Scots secession? Would the UK, minus Scotland, not also have to reapply for membership? By such a perverse way might the Tory right get their wish to leave Europe. But if the Scots have annexed North Sea oil, there would be little left to power the economy of what remains of the UK. Perhaps someone should whisper into Cameron’s ear: “Wait until the Scottish independence referendum has passed before you start talking about quitting Europe.”
Every year, following the awarding of the Nobel prizes, a crowd gathers beneath the balcony of Oslo’s Grand Hotel for a torchlight procession. This year was always going to present difficulties for an Oslo citizenry as bemused as everyone else by the decision to award the peace prize to the EU. So they decided to turn it into a political rally. The night before the ceremony, several hundred anti-EU protesters took serenely to the streets. The next evening, a larger crowd chanted its support for the EU, although considerably bolstered by sightseers and well-wishers. To the naked eye, it would have seemed that support for the EU had grown rapidly. But it was a false impression. The Norwegians have voted against EU membership in two referendums and current opposition to Europe sits at around 75%. The political dividing lines on Europe would also confound Britain’s euro-sceptics. In Norway, it is the right who are pro-Europe.
The ruling coalition of Labour, Socialists and Centrists has been in power for seven years and has shown no desire to alter the status quo. “They might grumble about agreeing to so much Brussels legislation with no representation, but they know what side their bread is buttered on. They get access to the big EU markets and they don’t want to upset the equilibrium of the EEA agreements by doing something stupid like using their veto,” said Fergus.
While Osborne has just said that Britain is only a third of the way through an age of austerity that will last until 2018, the Norwegians are wallowing in their years of plenty that don’t look like they will end any time soon. And nor will their application to join the EU.
In the teeming boulevard outside The Scots Man pub, there were two singing Santas, a handful of eastern European street musicians and more than a few fur coats that looked pleasingly real. And prams, lots of prams with lots of pink young women in their slipstream. They are called the pram mafia here, for who will dare to cross a mother and her infant? Yet there can be no more profound statement of Norway’s sense of optimism and a future that holds no fears.
Much later that evening, there are the reassuring sounds of inebriation and sirens to dazzle Britain even more.