In Norway, a budding consensus on Europe policy

The Norwegian Foreign Policy Committee’s recent deliberations on the Government’s whitepaper on Europe policy reveals a shift in the public debate on Norwegian policy towards the European Union.

20/02/2007 ::   

Article background: Norway and the EU

PONDERING EUROPE: An agreement on policy towards the European Union appears to be underway in Norway. Sculptures from the Vigeland Park, Oslo. 

The committee’s unanimous opinion on Norwegian policy towards the European Union provides interesting reading for observers of the country’s special relationship to the EU (click here for the full text in Norwegian). As commented by foreign editor Nils Morten Utgaard of Aftenposten a mass-circulation daily, all major political parties now view the EU as a positive influence, all parties wish to monitor developments in Brussels more closely and, importantly, they are, at least for the time being, willing to let the question of EU membership remain dormant.

What sort of relationship?

Norway’s relations with the European Union are governed by the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement set up in 1992 to extend the four liberties of the Single Market to Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, all members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Through the years public debate on Norway’s relationship to the ongoing process of political integration in Europe has oscillated between on the one hand the question of membership of the European Union, and on the other hand the question of how best to manage the country’s self-imposed non-membership.

At various intervals calls have been made for scrapping the EEA arrangement either for full-fledged membership or for arrangements more similar to the bilateral sectoral agreements pursued by Switzerland, member of EFTA but non-signatory to the EEA. 

Pundits seem to agree the unanimous opinion is an indication that the EEA agreement, the existing framework for Norway-EU relations, is a matter of fact. As an editorial in Bergens Tidende, a regional daily, puts it, the common position is “a disappointment for those hoping Norway would undertake another membership debate during the current parliament. It will not.”

A proactive stance

That is not to say the parties want a consolidation of the status quo. Rather, the Government’s more proactive stance on all matters European appears to resonate well with the wider political community.

The Government whitepaper on Norwegian policy towards the European Union released in 2005 proposes a series of measures aimed at involving the Norwegian parliament and the general public to a greater extent in matters were Norway and the EU cooperate closely. That should mean more transparency, a greater role for Parliament and ultimately for Norway a greater say in European matters.

The committee’s display of consensus means all the major national parties agree that “EU legislation affects Norwegian society to an ever greater extent. Accordingly Norway-EU relations can no longer be seen merely as a matter of foreign policy. EU decisions carry consequences for all aspects of Norwegian society, including those traditionally regarded as domestic matters.” [Unofficial translation]

The parliamentarians agree that reforms are needed in order to meet the challenges of ever more far-reaching legislation emanating from Brussels, increasing amounts of which is dealt with outside of the traditional EEA framework.

Plans for action

Reviewing it’s own role in shaping Norwegian policy towards the EU, the foreign policy committee proposes changes in the way it deals with EEA and other EU legislation, including a greater role for the other standing parliamentary committees. These will be given the right of initiative in European matters. Matters discussed in the parliamentary committee on EEA affairs will be discussed in parallel by the relevant specialised committee if deemed necessary: Environmental legislation emanating from Brussels may thus be debated in the committee on energy and the environment as well as in the committee on EEA affairs.

In a bid to promote transparency and efficiency, EU legislative proposals will be sorted according to subject matter and grouped according to three categories: Those requiring legislative and/or budgetary amendments, those requiring amended regulations, and finally those bearing no consequences for Norway.

On a general note, the committee wants the Storting, Norway’s 169-member legislature, to get involved earlier and more systematically in debating forthcoming EU proposals. It furthermore wants to establish closer ties between the Storting and the European Parliament, increasing the funds available to political parties for promoting cooperation with sister parties and party groups in the latter. 

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