TCS Daily

Nordic Combined

By Lene Johansen - March 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Political parties in Iceland and Norway are getting ready for another attempt to persuade their citizens to join the European Union.

At a recent meeting the Icelandic Progress Party decided to run on a pro-EU platform during the next election. But not until after a heated debate on the topic at their national convention did party members agree on that course of action. The delegates appointed a committee to formulate conditions for future EU membership negotiations; they adopted a resolution, which would require a national referendum on the negotiation outcome. Halldór Ásgrímsson, prime minister and chairman of the Progress Party, declared he was satisfied with the outcome.

Norwegian politicians are watching the Icelandic discussion closely. The country's prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, said developments in Iceland could influence the Norwegian debate. Both Iceland and Norway have a long history of ambivalence towards the EU. Together with Switzerland and Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway are maintaining membership in European Free Trade Association. EFTA originally included several other countries that later left the organization to become full members of the EU.

Iceland has never applied for full EU membership, but Norway has gone through negotiations twice. Norwegian voters rejected the final negotiated membership agreement in national referendums in 1972 and 1994. EFTA's membership countries, including Norway, initiated the negotiation of the European Economic Area Agreement to ensure that EFTA members had access to the inner market without being full members of the EU. Iceland, Norway and Lichtenstein signed the agreement in 1994, while Switzerland chose not to join. Switzerland chose to pursue multiple bilateral agreements with the EU, a strategy that seems more successful in preserving national sovereignty and limiting cost. EEA forced the three membership countries to adopt a majority of EU regulation without giving them the opportunity to vote on the regulation.

The Nordic countries have since 1961 also been part of a Nordic Passport Union, which creates an inner labor market for the members of the Nordic Council. The agreement ensures portable social security and health care services for any citizens of the member states. Both Iceland and Norway chose to participate in the Schengen Treaty as the two only non-EU members in 2001 in order to maintain Nordic Passport Union privileges.

The decision to join Schengen, a treaty rejected by voters in the UK and Ireland, resulted in a pervasive EU penetration of the national sovereignty of Norway and Iceland. The EU granted voting rights to Norway and Iceland in the EU Council of Ministers on border control issues. But EEA membership has forced Norway and Iceland to pass about 80 percent of common body of laws, practices and regulations of EU that all new members have to accept in its entirety as part of joining. Thus, the countries already are heavily influenced by decisions made in Brussels. However, they have no direct authority in any of the decisions. Norwegian Labor Party leader Jens Stoltenberg questioned this, considering that Norway contributes more per capita to the new members of EU than any of the full member countries. Norway pays an annual fee of almost €240 million.

Iceland is worried that a membership will jeopardize the country's fishing industry. The country has established a well-functioning fishing quota trade based on free market solutions, while EU's centralized quota allotment has led to over-taxation on several deep-water species.

The Norwegians have learned a lesson or two from their previous referendums on EU membership, and several politicians claim they will not propose a referendum until polls show a consistent support for membership with a 20 percent margin for an extended period of time. The debate has the power to break apart executive cabinets based upon broad coalitions in both countries. This consideration will be part of the mix before the politicians open up the debate for real.

Politicians tried to sell the EEA as a way to retain national sovereignty, while still being able to join the inner market. But it is becoming more and more obvious to voters in Norway and Iceland that this is not the case. Stoltenberg's facetious comments during last year's national convention of the Swedish Labor Party, in which he said Norway was a superpower in EFTA, was a poignant reminder to Norwegian voters that EEA is not the alternative that it was portrayed to be.

The open speculations among pro-EU politicians about reopening the issue are signaling that Iceland and Norway are preparing to take another look at EU. Opponents of EU are taking the talk seriously; they have already started to attack the proposals with rhetoric that already have the flair of the heated debate from the last referendum in Norway.


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