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Home Opinion Fresh fight over EU-relationship
Norway • EU • Coalition

Fresh fight over EU-relationship

Sten Inge Jørgensen - 30 October 2012

Even in relatively prosperous Norway, the growing tide of EU-scepticism is causing fractures in the centre-left coalition
 
Due to the euro-crisis, eurosceptic sentiment in Norway has risen to 70-80 per cent, and the groups that want to pull Norway out of the EEA Agreement (European Economic Area Agreement) have become emboldened. For two years now, the labour unions’ protests against EU-directives have become gradually louder.

First, they managed to persuade a small majority in the Labour party to say no to the postal-directive at the party’s national convention in 2011.  Second, they managed to win the media-battle about the EU services directive, which the unions portray as a motor for social dumping. Now they claim that the agency workers directive will have the opposite of its intended effect, that it will become much easier for employers to use temporary workers.

The leaders of these unions know that their members don’t want to cancel the whole EEA, because they fear the consequences of not having a solid trade agreement with the EU. Their strategy is therefore to demand that the government cancels all parts of the EEA Agreement that regulate labour.
 
Experts on EU law are shaking their heads, and media commentators are wondering what the strategy of these radical union leaders really is. Since it is impossible to cancel one part of the EEA Agreement in this manner, and since the majority of union members don’t want to risk Norways’ membership of the EEA, it is tempting to believe that they have lost contact with reality or that they are pursuing private agendas.

The Labour party has stated publicly that the EEA Agreement is as solid as a rock, but they have not managed to ease the protests. Rather, the pressure is increasing, as their two anti-EU government coalition-partners, the Center-party (Farmers Party) and the Socialist Left, also want to take advantage of the dwindling support for Norwegian EU-membership. Indeed, they want to go even further than the union leaders, and cancel the whole EEA Agreement.

The worrying thing for the coalition government is that these two parties will take on this fight even though they know they cannot win. In opinion polls, they have only 10 per cent support together, and all the other parties are pro- the EEA Agreement. The only reason they take this fight on is to tap into today’s EU-sceptic sentiment to get more voters for themselves.
 
But the unions and the anti-EU-parties are maneuvering themselves into dangerous water. There are only three possible outcomes of their efforts, and they are losers in all of them:
 
Firstly, if the Labour party rolls out their big cannons, and mobilise the leaders of the unions who organise workers in the exporting sectors, the fight will get prime-time coverage in all national media. Then the Labour party can get through with a message that has been impossible to communicate until now; namely that these anti-EU-voices don’t have any substantial facts on their side. The Labour party can point to a fresh 1000-page long report written by the brightest researchers in Norway, who concluded that the EEA has been very good for Norway and that the directives adopted since 1994 have also improved the situation for Norwegian workers. If this message gets through, the anti-EU-voices will have lost their most important asset, namely public fear. This will probably also make Norwegians more positive to the EU.
 
Secondly, if the conflict goes on without being solved by big Labour-cannons, the centre-right opposition will get an extra boost in their efforts to win the election next year. They will communicate that we are now seeing an increasingly EU-sceptic red-green coalition, and that this represents a danger for the future of Norway’s jobs and the economy in general.

Independent of the opposition’s strategy, it is also a fact that the red-green coalition are now far behind in media-polls, and that it will be extremely difficult to keep the parties together if this EU-conflict increases. If they cannot present themselves as a majority-alternative, they have lost one of their most important advantages in the election campaign, namely their ability to exploit the fact that the opposition is not united, and that the voters don’t know what they will get if they vote for one of the rightist parties.
 
The third scenario is that the EU-sceptics succeed. Let’s say that Norway actually pulls out of the EEA Agreement. Can they really hope for a better trade-agreement than today? Probably not, since the EEA builds on the EFTA, the former “alternative” to the EU, where powerful countries like the UK were part of the negotiating team together with Norway.

Also, the current situation in the EU makes it likely that the future structure of cooperation on the European level will be between groups of countries, with a tightly integrated centre, and one or two outer circles. Norway could suddenly find itself together with countries like the UK and Switzerland. That would be quite an awakening for the predominantly leftist Norwegian eurosceptics, whose main argument against the EU has always been that the community favours business interests over people’s interest. They will soon discover that these countries are more “capitalistic” than the EU itself. These countries are so much bigger than Norway, that our influence in this new “alliance” would be reduced to that of Liechtenstein in the EEA today (where Norway is the king).
 
These scenarios don’t scare the anti-EU-leaders though. Their opposition to the EU tends to be based on an idealistic notion that the union is not perfect, and this lack of pragmatism leads them to follow their conscience no matter what the consequences are.

The most probable outcome is that the Labour party goes for option number 1, but it can be hard to avoid that their coalition partners still pursues number 2, with devastating consequences for their alliance.

A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

Sten Inge Jørgensen is a journalist for Morgenbladet

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on The limits of nation state social democracy.

Tags: SOTL , Norway , EU , European Union , Labour party (Norway) , Arbeiderpartiet , A/Ap , Euroscepticism , Euro-crisis , Eurocrisis , Crisis , Financial Crisis , Economic Crisis , EEA , European Economic Area , Centre Party (Norway) , Senterpartiet , Sp , Socialist Left Party (Norway) , Sosialistisk Venstreparti , Sosialistalas Gurutbellodat , SV , UK , European Free Trade Association , EFTA , Liechtenstein , Switzerland ,

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