Opinion: Norway? No way! Why a life on Europe’s periphery is not an option for Britain

Norweigan coastIn Britain’s recent EU debate, it’s clear that the anti-Europeans have been doing most of the running. When they’re not basing their arguments on wholesale lies, they fall back on a mixture of half-truths, assumptions and wishful thinking. One of the best examples is the common claim that Britain can leave the EU but keep trading with the Single Market, ’just like Norway’. A have-your-cake-and-eat-it solution that sounds like the best of both worlds. They highlight the non-EU country’s considerable oil wealth – irrelevant to the membership debate – to drive home their point.

Unfortunately, like most things which seem too good to be true, the ‘Norwegian option’ is a mirage. Anti-Europeans fail to mention that to trade with the EU, Norway still has to implement the vast majority of EU regulations. These are the rules that make sure the food we buy is safe, that appliances are energy efficient and that goods produced in one EU country can be sold in all the others. According to a major independent review earlier this year, Norway has adopted 75% of EU legislation – amounting to some 6,000 laws – despite being outside the EU. This gives the country access to trade with the European market, but without any say whatsoever over the content of those laws.

The review’s 911-page report puts it starkly:

The most problematic aspect of Norway’s association with the EU is that Norway is in practice bound to adopt EU policies and rules on a broad range of issues without being a member and without voting rights. This raises democratic problems. Norway is not represented in decision-making processes that have direct consequences for Norway, and neither do we have any significant influence on them.

In contrast, the UK has a seat at every table, with 73 British MEPs in the European Parliament and a British minister at every meeting of the Council – each with a joint say over all EU rules. As one of the bigger member states, Britain also has greater weight in shaping decisions from the outset – the Single Market and EU expansion to eastern Europe were largely UK-inspired projects – though this is a role we have sadly started to voluntarily resign in recent years.

But surely the Norwegian option would at least save us money? Wrong again, our Eurosceptic friends. As part of its agreement to access the EU Single Market, Norway pays an annual contribution to EU coffers, mostly used to fund infrastructure and other development projects in Europe’s central and eastern member states. And get this: Norwegians actually pay more per capita to the EU budget than Brits, in order to have no say over the EU laws they adopt.

Norway’s economy is certainly thriving outside the EU, but that is the result of shrewd government management of its oil and gas revenues rather than its voluntary exclusion from EU decision-making. British anti-Europeans would be very wrong to think that such success would automatically flow from leaving the EU. Instead, they would sell out Britain’s power and influence in Europe for a half-way house that could end up costing more than being a full member.

Written in conjunction with Linda Ehnmark, a board member of the European Movement in Norway and a former chair of the Oslo branch.

* Giles Goodall is a Lib Dem European Parliamentary Candidate for South East England.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Excellent article. Hope a few Euro-sceptics learn from it

  • Alex Matthews 23rd Dec '12 - 4:49pm

    A great article, it is just a shame that anti-Europe crew will continually ignore these obvious truths.

  • Mark Argent 23rd Dec '12 - 5:13pm

    What is scary is that the “Norwegian option” is credible… if you understand sufficiently little about the EU. Serious euro-scepticism is also credible if you understand sufficiently little about the EU.

    Serious involvement in the EU requires knowledge and understanding — to benefit by involvement, to contribute to the EU and to benefit from contributing.

    If people trash the EU then they have no reason to learn about it. If they don’t learn, how can we have a credible debate? If we don’t have a credible debate, that risks wandering blindly into the “Norwegian option” and all its shortcomings.

    How on earth do we prom

  • Mark Argent 23rd Dec '12 - 5:14pm

    (oops, pressed “post” too soon)… should have ended…

    How on earth do we promote understanding of the EU to people who rubbish it based on not knowing and not understanding?

  • Giles Goodall 23rd Dec '12 - 8:28pm

    @Chris, @Alex: thanks for the feedback!
    @Mark: You’re right that there’s a massive information gap in our country on Europe, which starts at school (where we don’t learn much about the British system of government either) and carries on in life aided and abetted by our Euro-disinterested (at best) or disingenuous (at worst) media. Anyone who believes in an honest debate about the pros and cons has an interest in helping to inform people of the facts. That goes for politicians as much as journalists and anyone else with a public role. I strongly believe in our responsibility as Lib Dems to do so too!

  • Thanks Giles, Your regular articles on LDV speak a simple truth: that we’re better off inside the EU and that the anti-Europeans might have gut feeling of some on their side, but little else.

  • Daniel Booth 23rd Dec '12 - 9:47pm

    Interesting that this piece was published precisely a week after high profile Conservative EU sceptic Dan Hannan wrote in his blog:

    “almost no British Eurosceptic is proposing that we copy Norway. Let me repeat that, because it doesn’t seem to be getting through to the BBC or, indeed, to Number Ten: Almost no British Eurosceptic wants to copy Norway.”

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 23rd Dec '12 - 9:54pm

    @Daniel Booth in his Radio 4 interview today he kept on mentioing Norway and Switzerland

  • Keith Browning 23rd Dec '12 - 10:12pm

    Forget the economics just look at the physical geography of these alternative options to the EU.

    Norway, Switzerland and then further afield, Canada is another often used as a role model, by the little Englanders. The other latest one that poped up this week, for drugs, is Portugal.

    The geography and population distribution in all these is extreme, in the extreme..!!!!

    None of these four could be a role model for anywhere except themselves.

    However, if we ditched our military and toned down our war-mongering to the level of the others, then that might be a start. Then, perhaps next Xmas, we will all be baking dried codfish for 25th Dec, like Norway and Portugal, using whale blubber oil as a fuel source, like a certain percentage of Canadians, whilst telling the time by our newly installed cuckoo clocks.

  • Paul in Twickenham 24th Dec '12 - 12:17am

    The Norwegian study also includes this revealing comment :

    In (Iceland in) 2003 the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Halldór Ásgrimsson, said that Iceland had to adopt 80 % of EU legislation via its agreements. Two years later the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Davíð Oddsson, indicated that the percentage was just 6.5 %. While Ásgrímsson supports EU membership, Oddson opposes it.

    Statistics really are in the eye of the beholder. If you read a little further into the report beyond the quote given by Giles then you come to this which might help explain the huge discrepancy in numbers quoted by partisans on both sides:

    The Storting must consent to ratify all new EU agreements or legislative acts that entail significant new obligations for Norway. In the period 1992–2011, the Storting voted on a total of 287 such EU matters, 265 of which were unanimously agreed to, and most of the remaining 22 were agreed to by a broad majority… Of the more than 6 000 new EU legislative acts that have been incorporated into the EEA Agreement, the use of our right to enter a reservation
    has only been proposed in connection with 17.

  • Frank Furter 24th Dec '12 - 9:33am

    What this article does not say is that the EU is going to change dramatically. The eurozone will in one way or another become more integrated in nature – not just in monetary and fiscal areas, but also in political decision making. I find it difficult to believe that the British people will accept that we should join this ‘Federal’ model. That suggests that there has to be an alternative for Britain, and, possibly, other countries that do not want to federalise. That alternative will not be Norway, nor Switzerland, but may be built on what they have already. Those who favour our continuing close relationship with the EU, pehaps even our joining the eurozone, must realise a moment of choice is coming; they will need to argue their case in the context of a new situation, not on the basis of the status quo.

  • Why a life on Europe’s periphery is not an option for Britain.?
    By all accounts life on the periphery of Europe means 50% youth unemployment. Also, on the periphery, are decent European folk, who a year ago had what they thought were secure jobs, and are now heads-down in skips looking for food that is past its sell by date.
    But of course, the ‘Bloats of Brussels’, do not have to reside at the periphery. They remain, happily feeding at the Central Trough Headquarters, unmoved by the crumbling lives of their peripheral, EU brethren.
    And Lib Dem flagship policy is, let’s have more of this madness.

  • Giles Goodall 24th Dec '12 - 2:56pm

    @Stephen W: The figures I quote are from Norway’s government-commissioned independent review into the country’s position in Europe, to which I refer and link above. This is the most authoritative assessment that anyone has ever carried out into the costs and benefits of Norway’s EU halfway house.
    @jedibeeftrix: I would not spend too much time listening to Hannan, he’s all over the place on this issue as on others. Just on 15 October, he wrote in the Daily Mail that ‘one option would be to remain in the EEA alongside Norway, offering full participation without any of the political structures’. On 9 November he wrote, again in the Mail, that ‘Britain would thrive outside the EU’ before going on to quote at length Norway (and Switzerland). He’s even published pamphlets extolling the virtues of EFTA membership.

  • Martin Lowe 24th Dec '12 - 3:16pm


    Hannan is, as ever, being disingenuous when he states that no Eurosceptic wants to copy Norway’s example.

    Out on the Internet where some of us have been debating with euro sceptics for years, being like Norway is one of the zombie arguments that we have to knock down again and again (along with the EU audit, ‘being lied to’ in the 1975 referendum and the various conspiracy theory elements regarding the EU’s foundation).

    The general tactic of euro sceptics on the Internet is to keep telling the same lies on the basis that if they are repeated enough then they will become true. Dan Hannan is no exception to this.

  • Everyone’s missing the point here. It is not about advocating membership of the EU as it is now, it is about how we deal with the EU as it will be from 2014 onwards, as it moves towards full political, economic and fiscal union, with much more limited national sovereignty. Britain’s current halfway house situation will no longer be tenable in the future.

    While it has massive faults at present, the EU as it stands offers some advantages. In the future, the negative aspects are about to become much more serious.

    How are we going to deal with that then?

  • The party has no credibility left on this argument, with a whip to vote against a referendum after saying we were in favour of one.

  • I support the EU generally – in fact, living and doing business in another member state I use the 1992 rights on a daily basis.
    What I am not convinced of is the case for further integration, or why the EU budget is the only government spending in the whole continent that is protected from austerity measures. The reason Europe is a vote-loser for the Lib Dems is not because people actually want to swap places with Norway (I heard the phrase “fax democracy”, they elect people to read the faxes from Brussels and implement the directives), but because there is a suspicion that the Lib Dems would take the UK further in, for example by joining the euro, which is still party policy, is it not? The sudden turn-around this time last year from being less pro-cuts than the Tories, to being enthusiastic supporters of balanced budgets (I am referring to the debt brake of deficits at a maximum of 3 percent of GDP) at the exact moment when it was proposed at an EU conference (the one where David Cameron got his headlines) is a good example of the perceived, and perhaps real, problem. Articles like this which try to make the party look favourable in comparison with people who are mad even by the standards of Tory party, and don’t make any kind of case for what the party actually believes don’t really help.

  • Michael Berridge 27th Dec '12 - 12:48pm

    Richard S assumes “Europe is a vote-loser for the Lib Dems” which if true is frightening. If Labour is ambivalent and Tories are against, then psychologically Britain has already left Europe. That is a pity, because we need a strongly linked community of European nations, based on the social-marke t model, as a counterpoise to the American capitalist model.

  • Two-thirds of our trade with the rest of the EU is in the wrong direction. Outside the EU we would trade with the EU in the same way as the rest of the world, we would save the membership fee and all the bureaucratic costs, and we would be able to look after our own interests – for example stopping milk being dumped here, or stopping our heavy industries being moved out of the country to comply with nonsense ‘carbon’ targets.

  • Richard Swales 27th Dec '12 - 4:03pm

    I think both David and Michael are making the mistake of assuming that changing the consitutional position will change the policies. UK governments have been in favour of various environmental treaties over time, they are not forced on us from Brussels. Equally, Michael assumes that the EU countries want to play a role on the world stage as a counterweight to the US. Apart from the question of what is meant by that (e.g. balance militarily ?- because as a counter-example to third countries as an alternative economic system, we don’t need a federation – in fact it is an argument that our example is inapplicable to an individual country) some of the newer members are more right-wing and thatcherite than the current US administration, the major selling point of membership of the EU to them is unfettered trade and locking in of free-market reforms. With the exception of France, most recent elections in the older states have swung to the right too. Of course there are lots of different views on a whole continent, but I don’t see the EU as being specifically about a social market (the US also has federal Labour law and even a federal minimum wage too).

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