Friday, January 08, 2016

The Norway Option

As the video I posted yesterday demonstrated, different supporters of British exit from the EU have very different ideas about whether the "Norway Option" of return to EFTA would be a good solution in the event of a "Leave" vote in the forthcoming referendum.

And some of those who think this might be a good option are so convinced they are right about this that they have been accusing David Cameron of lying when he says that the "Norway Option" would make Britain subject to the rules of the European Single Market without any say in setting them.

Let's be clear, I am not accusing those who believe that Norway has significant influence over the rules of the EU Single Market of lying.

I do think they are wrong.

And I think it is most unhelpful when they accuse those who disagree with them of lying, not least because the Prime Minister and others who have expressed this opinion have not simply made it up, but are repeating what has been said many times by senior members of the Norwegian government.

A few months ago I published on this blog a review of a Special Report published a few days before in The Economist magazine, "The Reluctant European" which analysed the arguments for and against British exit from the EU. (It is available here as a sequence of articles and here as a PDF)

I predicted that both sides would quote extensively but selectively from it, a prediction which proved accurate, because it recognised that one particular argument for Brexit had a good deal of force, but severely criticised a number of the arguments put by both sides, particularly most of the other arguments for Britain's departure from the EU. I also wrote that one thing in "The Reluctant European" which was particularly likely to upset some Brexit supporters was that, quote,

"The Economist challenges head on an argument often put by advocates of British exit from the EU, that despite not being in the EU the rules still give Norway and other EEA members some influence over what those rules are. When he was an academic, Norway's present attorney general led a study of the relationship between the country and the EU which reported 'serious democratic concerns because Norway was forced to implement laws that it had no say in making.'

"The magazine quotes Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s Europe minister, as saying that because his country is not represented in the Brussels institutions, it often finds it difficult even to discover what laws are being proposed and adopted. They say that the Norwegian Prime Minister and Attorney general have advised Britain 'to steer clear of the Norwegian model at all costs.'

It is not at all difficult to find on the internet plenty of articles and interviews in which Fredrik Sejersted, formerly a professor of law who took over as Norway's Attorney General last year, has indeed expressed precisely the views which "The Economist" attributes to him.

So has Vidar Helgesen, who combined the jobs of Minister for European affairs in the Norwegian cabinet, and chief of staff in the Prime Minister's office, until less than a month ago: he is still in Norway's government but moved to become Minister of Climate and the Environment on 16th December 2015.

In 2012 Fredrik Sejersted and Ulf Sverdrup wrote a report for the European Council on Foreign Relations on the Norwegian model. At that time Fredrik Sejersted was director of the Centre for European Law at the University of Oslo and Ulf Sverdrup was director of the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs (NUPI). They wrote an article in The Independent about the report they were writing which any British Eurosceptic who is thinking of supporting a "Norway Option" solution for Britain would be very well advised to read, which you can do here.

They noted that

"Norway has stayed out of the European Union, and seems to manage quite happily, reaping the benefits of the single market without the aggravations of membership. To many British Eurosceptics that must seem like the perfect deal.

"Well, it is not. On closer examination, the ‘Norwegian option’ is not an example to be followed, but should rather serve as a warning about how difficult a ‘half in; half out’ approach to Europe is. While Norway is formally outside the EU, in reality we are deeply integrated but without the rights of representation. The model is complex and costly, as well as problematic both in terms of democracy and national interest."

They went on to explain that

"Norway has taken more than three-quarters of EU law and policy, and this has had tremendous effects on the national political and legal system."

"The real lesson to be learned from Norway is that for a modern European country with an open economy there is nowhere to hide from the EU."

"The common feature is integration without representation.

"Through the agreements Norway is in effect obliged to implement new law and policy coming from Brussels, but without any say in the decision-making processes.

"A veil of formal sovereignty hides the transfer of real powers, creating a special kind of democratic deficit."

Earlier the same year, a committee chaired by Professor Sejersted had written a report commissioned by the Norwegian government on the country's EU membership which delivered similar findings as you can read in an article on the BBC website here: that report argued that Norway's status outside the EU was essentially "an illusion."

Let's look at the comments made by Vidar Helgeson while he was Norway's European affairs minister and Chief of Staff to the Norwegian PM, and here again the problem of selective quotation by pro- and anti- BREXIT campaigners becomes apparent.

Mr Helgeson has said things which can be quoted out of context by those Eurosceptics who like the Norwegian option as inferring that Norway has substantial influence on single market rules, and he has also said things which can be quoted by those who wish to express concern about the Norway option to imply the opposite.

In fact his views are perfectly consistent but much more nuanced than those looking for a quote to support a black-and-white view of the matter might wish. A good place to read them in context is an interview at in which he discusses both Norway's influence on the single market and how much Norway has to pay for European Economic Area (EEA) status: the relevant page is called

"Vidar Helgesen: our EEA contribution costs almost as much as EU membership."

Talking of the pre-work by technical experts, he says that

"we have the right to take part in committees under the Commission where Norwegian experts do participate.

"As long as you have knowledge and expertise and bring that to the table, our voice is heard as much as EU member states. A lot of these discussions are technical. In some areas, we are globally leading in the technical expertise."

However he immediately went on to add:

"If and when there are bigger political issues our shortcomings are more evident because we are not at the table when the decisions are made."

Later in the article he says that

"There is very clearly a paradox in that the single international actor that influences the Norwegian society and our daily life the most, the EU, is the only big international organisation that we are not a member of."

You can immediately see why one side of the argument about the "Norway option" might want to selectively quote the first three sentences there and leave out what follows, and the other side of the argument might wish to do the reverse!

Commenting on those British "leave" campaigners  who hold up Norway as

"an example of a successful nation operating outside of Brussels' control."

Vidar Helgesen told Sky News that "the truth is much more complicated and much less rosy."

He said that "We import three quarters of EU legislation with virtually no say in the decision making process. It's a very good solution for our economy - some argue it's not necessarily a good solution for our democracy ..."

He told the Telegraph in an interview written up as "Why Britain should not leave the EU to be like Norway: by a Norwegian minister" that

"Without a seat at the table, it is difficult to play a real part in decision-making."

"During the past 20 years, Norway has incorporated more than 10 000 EU rules into the EEA Agreement. We see the results of these rules every day – in our daily lives, in our work and in business. However, we have had little direct influence over their development. Although we implement more than three quarters of EU legislation, we have to work very hard to make our voice heard."

"Norway’s trade with EU countries accounts for a greater share of our foreign trade than is the case for the UK. We are part of Schengen, and in relative terms we have more EU labour immigrants than the UK. We regularly align ourselves with EU positions on foreign and security policy. And our financial contributions are on a par with comparable EU member-states. Basically, with the exception of our agricultural policies, we are part of the same European integration process as the UK. But we do not have the right to vote in Europe."

He gave a very interesting three minute TV interview on the subject of British EU membership and the Norway option in October 2015 which you can watch on the MSN site at

Interestingly the last line of the interview was the statement that another lesson from Norway is not to try to predict referendum results!

Pulling the threads together it seems to me that those "Leave" supporters who think that a "Norway Option" would give Britain dramatically more freedom from Brussels than we have now have mistaken the illusion referred to by Fredrik Sejersted for the reality and failed to see through the veil of formal sovereignty which hides the transfer of real power to the EU.


Jim said...

There are a few basic errors in there. Whilst I am not going to accuse you of telling porkies, I think it stems down to a mine of misinformation.

First one is the no say part - As Anne Beathe Tvinnereim (Norwegian Minister for Local Government & Regional Development - Norwegian Centre Party) pointed out in the video I linked the other day, norway are not there to vote on the wrapping and packaging of a regulation, they do have a lot of clout before it reaches the EU, then of course after that they have a veto on it. This was most recently exercised on the postal directive, which does not apply in Norway, but the UK could not veto it.

Norway adopting 3/4 of EU law is also misleading, it may be that Norway has chosen to adopt their own versions of certain laws that are passed by the EU, but it only has (or rather is expected to, and not veto, though it can if it wants) adopt the 22% of the acquis that is in direct relation to the single market.

Another one people will mis place is that the acquis is 750,000 pages. This is misleading as well. whilst this much has been written, yes. A lot of laws update or replace, or join older ones - thats just one that is incorrectly used usually by the Brexit side.

The vital point is that Norway has a full seat on the WTO, UNICE and other governing body's, the UK does not. Norway has a veto over single market rules it does not like, the UK does not. Norway is not subject to the rulings of the ECJ, the UK is. Norway is not subject to the CFP or the CAP, the UK is. Norway can set its own VAT rates, the UK can not. Norway can negotiate its own external trade deals - the UK can not.

Which ever way you look at it the Norway option is preferable to EU membership, be that full or Associated Membership. Whilst I do admit The Norway Option Is Not Perfect I do live in the real world, and I know nothing ever is perfect, but the norway option is off the shelf, is do-able, is workable, wont damage UK trade and is only proposed as a short term fix whilst we negotiate better.

Jim said...

If only one of the leave campaigns had some sort of guidance and adopted the Norway option as a vital part of an exit strategy. Something along the lines of "a Market Solution", one that is a Flexible approach and continues with continuous development. If only one of the main campaigns would do that, then we may have a hope (kind of like episode IV).....................

Chris Whiteside said...

We're obviously not going to agree on this.

The situation is a lot more complex than the more hardline and extreme positions on either side suggest. As I said in my post, it's very easy to find selective quotations from the same people going opposite directions.

I was trying to avoid doing that which is why I illustrated the point with the quote from Vidar Helgesen in which his first three sentences appeared to support one extreme and the next thing he said appeared to go to the opposite extreme, and only be reading all of it can you get the true position.

I am not accusing you of deliberate selective quotation but I strongly suspect that the comments by Anne Beathe Tvinnereim in the video which you linked to may be a similar example of a picture which gives only one side of the story: in other words, the truth and nothing but the truth but not the whole truth.

I also disagree with your statement that we don't have a full seat at the WTO.

Oh yes we do.

Britain is a full member of the WTO and we have a permanent representative to the WTO with the rank of ambassador: this post is currently held by Julian Braithwaite who blogs about his work: here is a blog post he wrote about World Trade and the WTO last month as the WTO's tenth ministerial conference was starting.

Granted, he "doubles up" this job with acting as ambassador to UN and other international organisations based in Geneva but part of his office is to ensure that the UK has a direct channel of communication to find out what is going on at the WTO for which we are not dependent on the EU.

And although the UK and other EU members usually find it convenient to make representations through the EU rather than individually we do actually have our own seat. The vast majority of the time Britain chooses not to use it but if we thought the EU was barking completely up the wrong tree we could.

Chris Whiteside said...

However I think we are both agreed that in the real world there are no perfect options.

The Norway option is not perfect, the Swiss option isn't the WTO isn't -

but the status quo is not perfect either and neither will whatever DC negotiates be.

Chris Whiteside said...

Both you and I are trying to spot good arguments and mistakes by both sides - I did pick up your point about the acquis.

I think that this, sadly makes both of us light years more open minded than far too many partisans in both the "Leave" and "Remain" campaigns.

Jim said...

Ineresting speech from Dan Hannon which touches on a lot of the points you are making, and a few more. Jim Mellors into is also very good.

Chris Whiteside said...

The chairman who followed Dan summed it up, though, immediately after Dan's rousing speech, when he said "Thank you Dan for that excellent and emotional analysis."

It was a brilliantly rousing call to battle for those who have already decided which way to go.

And yet as someone who is still thinking about the matter, what Dan said had a strong appeal to my heart but no appeal whatsoever to my head.

Why is being in the EU "Retreating from the world?"

It might be if the EU itself was inward-looking but IMHO that isn't one of the EU's many faults.

Dan talked about how great Britain's Universities are, which is true.

And yet I'm on the Court of one of the Russell Group Universities, (that's the club for the top division of British Universities) and at a meeting at that University just before Christmas the Vice Chancellor talked about how valuable the EU's programme to support scientific research is to the University, what a world-class programme it is and how much he would regret EU exit because it would mean losing preferential access to that programme. (Other academics at the meeting expressed the same view.)

So talking about how great Britain's Universities are is actually an argument for "Remain" to those of us who are sufficiently well informed about the academic world to know that the majority (I'm not pretending it's 100% but it is a majority) of senior academics at those Universities like the service they are getting from the EU and want to remain.

Dan referred to Britain's "soft power." Yes, a recent study found that we had more "soft power" than any other nation - but that calculation referred to power exercised through networks of allies and memberships of organisations one of which was the EU.

And the allies whose relationships with us form part of that soft power are urging us to stay inside the EU and exercise that power in favour of reform. I don't know the views of every ally on the subject, but all the allies whose views I do know - certainly the USA and Norway - want us to stay in.

No easy answers, I'm afraid!