The Norwegian model isn’t working for Norway – it wouldn’t for Brexit Britain

By severing the link between economic arrangements and democratic process, “Norway-plus” would repeat the mistakes that led to the Leave vote.

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Slow TV – the broadcast version of diazepam – has become popular in Norway, where people watch lengthy train journeys, crackling fires and never-ending knitting on screen. As Norwegian trade minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen recently remarked on the Today programme, Brexit’s ceaseless rhythm is similarly sedating. “Some of it is going fast, some of it is going slow,” he observed.

While Brexit flounders forward, Norway watches with interest. British politicians have proposed a “Norway-plus” deal as a model for the UK – the “plus” refers to an added customs union. These invocations rarely take account of what Norwegians think of their country’s relationship to the EU, let alone whether Britain could copy and paste the agreement. In the view of the Norwegian left, the country’s European Economic Area membership has merely tightened the EU’s neoliberal straitjacket.

As the Cold War drew to a close in the 1980s, members of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) entered into negotiations with the European Economic Community to form the EEA and extend membership of the single market. Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995. Norway, by contrast, rejected membership in a second public referendum in 1994 (having previously done so in 1972), a stance it has maintained ever since.

“In reality, the EEA deal was never supposed to be permanent”, Idar Helle, a Norwegian historian and trade unionist, explained to me on the phone from Oslo; it was intended to prime Norway “for entry into the EU”. But the No campaign won the 1994 referendum by a narrow margin (52-48 per cent – the same result as the 2016 Brexit vote).

Sovereignty was high on the list of voters’ priorities. Unlike Britain, which has remained unoccupied since the Norman Conquests, Norway only gained independence from Swedish rule in 1905. For the preceding three centuries, it was subsumed within the Danish kingdom.

In exchange for access to the single market, Norway today abides by the EU’s four freedoms (the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour), is subject to an EFTA court, and pays roughly £740m in annual gross payments to the EU. It retains control of its fishing and agricultural sectors, but otherwise accepts this package in exchange for close economic ties. As Isaken noted, whereas EU member states have a say over the union’s policies, Norwegians “don’t have a seat at the table”. While in Brussels, he added, Norwegian delegates “literally stand out in the hall”.

This bodes ill for Brexiteers, who promised during the 2016 referendum to “take back control”. Nor will it please those who envisage a more progressive alternative to the EU’s free-market institutions.

Opposition to the EEA agreement is rising among parties on Norway’s left, including the Red Party, the Socialist Left, and the agrarian Centre Party (previously known as the Farmers’ Party). EU competition laws have become the fulcrum of hostility. In February last year, protests erupted over the adoption of EU energy rules, with trade unions opposing an energy package that will harmonise prices across the EU and threaten Norway’s state-owned hydroelectric energy company. The country’s Labour Party has since objected to the EU’s fourth package of railway reforms – the same rules that provided the impetus for French president Emmanuel Macron’s contested liberalisation of state rail company SNCF  – arguing they would effectively privatise the country’s railways.

The cross-party group of British MPs currently advocating a Norway-plus deal extol the potential economic benefits of a similar EEA agreement. On a recent episode of BBC2’s Politics Live, Conservative MP Nick Boles, a long-standing Cameroon and an ally of Michael Gove, argued that the advantage of a Norway-style deal was that the UK could remain in “the economic side of the European Union”, but not “the political side”.

He failed to recognise that the countries’ distinct features would obstruct Britain’s embrace of this model. In part, Norway’s willingness to pay into the EU can be traced to the same universalist philosophy that underpins its generous social security system – where everyone pays in, and draws out – something absent in Britain. As one friend succinctly put it to me when I recently visited Oslo: “people didn’t vote for Brexit to become more like Norway”.

There is a dangerous aspect to the notion that economics can be separated from politics. As Laurie Macfarlane, an economist at the UCL Institute of Public Purpose, has argued: “if the status quo is the problem then entrenching it further cannot be the solution”. A Norway deal would sever the link between economic arrangements and democratic processes – the very problem that led to the painful rupture of the Leave vote. To solve the Brexit impasse, Macfarlane has added, “only radical change at home – and within the EU itself – will provide the answer.” Norway delivers neither.

Hettie O'Brien is a New Statesman online editor and has written for the Guardian, Jacobin and the London Review of Books